Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh emailed me an interesting reaction to my post on Reagan’s 1986 immigration law.  Reprinted with this permission:


I enjoyed your blog post.  A few thoughts:

The bigger cost of IRCA was its boost of border
security, ending the ‘salutary neglect’ of immigration laws on the SW
border from the end of the Bracero Program in 1964 until 1986.  When
that happened, temporary Mexican migrants were locked in by immigration
enforcement that made it more expensive to cross the border. 

Massey’s figure 7 shows a decline in the probability of returning that coincides with IRCA:   

The cross-border flow during that period of
salutary neglect was huge, but the net increase in US population was
relatively small.  An estimated 26.7 million entries of unauthorized
Mexican migrants into the United States from 1965 to 1985 and 21.8
million departures to Mexico, yielding a net increase of just 4.9
million over 20 years. For lawful migrants, the return rate was lower
but fluctuated between 20 percent and 30 percent in the 1970s and 1980s.
 I quote from Massey’s book here:

IRCA mandated a 50% increase in border patrol staffing.  CBP staffing by border sector increased from early 1990s:

Here’s a graph of border patrol staffing by sector from 1980:

There are many other ways to measure the
intensity of border enforcement, such as line-watch hours.  Also, about
42% of unauthorized immigrants entered legally and overstayed their

If IRCA was combined with a workable guest worker
visa program for low-skilled workers then I think it would have
substantially reduced the flow of unauthorized immigrants after 1986,
but the small reforms to the H2 visa didn’t nearly go far enough.  If a
sufficiently large Bracero 2.0 was created with IRCA, it could’ve been
worth it.

When the workers can’t go back and forth, their
families will come north.  The biggest impact of IRCA was that it locked
in many unauthorized immigrants who otherwise would have left.  The
PATRIOT Act and post-9/11 border security bonanza sealed that


P.S. Alex’s father is director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Don’t miss his The Stoning of Soraya M.