IRCA: Lessons of the Last U.S. Legalization Program
Many news reports and commentators in the United States link immigration, especially when unauthorized, to negative economic effects, cultural fragmentation, and issues of national security. As a result of these perceived negative consequences, resistance to immigration, especially unauthorized immigration, appears to have increased. Others stress the benefits to this country of continuing immigration.
In order to evaluate these two positions and to assess related legislative and policy proposals, some knowledge of the experiences of the unauthorized population is required. The extent to which these immigrants become integrated into the labor force is especially relevant to this assessment, as is the relationship between their legal status and their success in obtaining good jobs.
In fact, most of the unauthorized immigrants who obtained legal status in the U.S. under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) found better jobs by 1992 than the ones they secured when they arrived, according to recent research that may have implications for current U.S. immigration reform proposals.
As a group, most, but not all, of the unauthorized immigrants who legalized through IRCA arrived with relatively low skill levels and found low-skill, low-wage jobs. Yet by 1992, the research shows, five years after legalization, most had jobs that were better than the first jobs they reported and, for many, much better than the jobs held in their homeland. In short, among this sample of legalized immigrants, some combination of the characteristics they brought with them and their experience in the U.S. resulted in a significant proportion of them achieving relative success in the labor force. They had improved their status as a result of unauthorized immigration and legalization.
The study focused primarily on the employment situation and occupations of a sample of the unauthorized who legalized their status under the 1986 IRCA and who responded to two detailed surveys conducted by Westat, Inc. for the Department of Labor. The Legalized Population Survey (LPS-1) conducted in 1989 included a sample of 6193 legalized immigrants and the Legalized Population Follow-Up Survey (LPS-2) conducted in 1992 included a sample of about 4,000 people who had participated in the first survey.
The responses were analyzed in terms of three important sets of variables. First, the study looked at the social, human capital, and other characteristics the immigrants brought with them from their country of origin. Second, it examined their process of immigration to the United States, including legal status at entry and whether their first job was promised before migration. Finally, the experience of these immigrants in the U.S. was taken into account, including years in the U.S. prior to application to legalize, whether the immigrant was employed at the time of application, schooling since application, marital status, and the availability of child care.
Who Was Studied, and How?
The research findings point both to the past and to the future and can be summarized in the following general way. First, as with previous waves of immigrants, this sample of legalized immigrants experienced upward occupational mobility in coming to the United States. Second, and consistent with so many dimensions of U.S. culture and society, this experience is remarkably different for men and women. Third, there is no single predictor of occupational success among these immigrants: occupational change reflects synergy among many factors, including several new factors, region of origin, family characteristics, and the first job held in the United States. And fourth, legal status matters: unauthorized status was a very important determinant of the first job held in the United States, which then influenced an immigrant's occupational trajectory.
Taking a closer look at the findings begins with a description of the outcome: occupational mobility. A series of analyses based on this sample of unauthorized immigrants revealed a high level of labor force participation with a pattern of moderate upward occupational mobility over time. As a group, this sample of formerly unauthorized immigrants found jobs and experienced small incremental gains in their occupations over time—not unlike the upward mobility of Americans generally which has been described in the sociological literature of the last several decades. Moreover, the occupational experiences of these immigrants were gendered: men generally were more successful than women, especially while they were undocumented.
Major predictors of relative success in the job market at time of application for legalization (in 1987) and five years later (in 1992) included country or region of origin, family and household characteristics, and the occupational status of first job in the United States. These characteristics move beyond other more traditional predictors of occupational attainment and mobility such as language proficiency, education, length of time in the U.S., and other social and human capital characteristics explored in other research. While education and language are the two most important predictors of success, family and household characteristics of the immigrants, their country of origin, and their first job experience in the United States also influenced the occupations they had in 1992 and the amount of mobility they experienced.
Legal status at entry also affected occupation at first arrival and subsequently. Those who initially entered the United States legally as students or temporary employees of transnational corporations, for example, and overstayed the legal duration of their non-immigrant visas, had more positive experiences than those immigrants who entered illegally.
With respect to the specific focus on occupations, by 1992, over 45 percent of men and 27 percent of women had attained occupational status better than the bottom third of all persons in the labor force. Moreover, about 48 percent of men and 38 percent of women experienced a gain in their occupational status between their first job and their job in 1992. Some immigrants experienced an initial decline in occupational status between the jobs held in the home country and their first jobs in the United States, followed by a rise in occupational status with length of U.S. residence. This is not an unusual trajectory: a prominent theme in studies of immigrant assimilation and integration is that immigrants experience initial downward occupational mobility in the economy of the host country. Cases such as the engineer driving a taxi or the teacher working as a nanny are typical examples.
Once in the U.S. labor force, however, the immigrants, on average, showed movement from occupations at the lowest status levels in their first job in the United States to occupations in 1992 that approached and sometimes exceeded the jobs reported in their countries of origin.
Immigrants from African and Asian developing countries and those from developed countries, who reportedly were in the middle range of occupations in their countries of origin, had, on average, achieved occupations at or approaching the mid-point of occupational status in the United States by 1992. Women did not fare as well as men, although, on average, they too experienced upward movement from their first job in the United States to the job they held in 1992 at the time of re-interview.
This analysis also compared the occupational status of Mexican men and women from border and interior states, and those with previous internal immigration experience within Mexico. The immigrants from Mexico had lower occupational status than all other origin groups at both times they were interviewed. There was almost no difference between those who came from border or interior states and almost no difference between those who had previous internal migration experience in Mexico and those who did not. Mexican men benefited most from migration and legalization, with occupational status scores in 1992 generally higher than those in their country of origin.
When analyzed in terms of the combined effects of more than one variable, the researchers found that no single aspect of the immigrant experience (i.e., characteristics at origin, the process of immigration, or experience in the United States) explained whether or not these formerly unauthorized immigrants achieved moderate occupational status or experienced upward occupational mobility between first job after arrival in the U.S. and 1992. The implication is that, at least among this sample of legalized immigrants, a combination of the characteristics they brought with them and their experience in the United States resulted in a significant proportion of them achieving relative success in the U.S. labor force. Among the results indicated by analyzing more than one variable in combination:
- Among men in the full sample, an older age at migration, the absence of education since application for legalization, being unmarried or not in a union at the time of application, and working at time of application, other things being equal, each reduced the likelihood of attaining a higher employment status, while higher levels of education in 1989 and greater English proficiency at application increased the likelihood.
- Among women in the full sample, an older age at migration, the absence of any education since application and finding a first job within one year of arrival each reduced the likelihood of attaining a higher employment status, while the interaction between age at migration and the years in the U.S. prior to application, higher levels of education in 1989, and greater English proficiency at application increased the likelihood.
- Among Mexican women, emigrating from a border state increased the likelihood of attaining a higher employment status.
- Among non-Mexican women, an increased number of children born in the U.S. reduced the likelihood of achieving a higher employment status, while initially entering the United States legally appeared to have the opposite effect.
- Among Mexican men, being unmarried or not in a marital union at time of application reduced the likelihood of achieving a higher employment status, while a need for childcare appeared to have the opposite effect.
- Among non-Mexican men, years in the United States prior to application increased the likelihood of attaining a higher employment status.
Implications for Policy Makers
This analysis is relevant to both immigration research and immigration policy, because it looks rather precisely at the legal and administrative status, as well as the experiences and origins, of unauthorized immigrants. In contrast, many, if not most, debates concerning the changing characteristics of immigrants and their ability to integrate into U.S. society and the economy are based either on relatively small case studies of particular groups and ethnic enclaves, or on comparisons of all immigrants, particularly recent immigrants, with the total native-born population found in census data.
There are obvious limitations to the generality of findings from both types of studies. The conclusions based on larger groups may lump together legal immigrants who entered under various visa categories, unauthorized immigrants, non-immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Moreover, at any single point in time, the foreign born will include a different mix of unauthorized and legally admitted immigrants and, among the latter, a different mix of visa types. In other words, some studies are too broad to be particularly useful to policy makers mulling U.S. immigration reform, while others may be too narrow.
This study focused on the population of unauthorized immigrants who legalized under provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. As a group, most, but not all, of them arrived with relatively low skill levels and found low-skill, low-wage jobs. Yet by 1992, five years after legalization, most had jobs that were better than the first jobs they reported and, for many, much better than the jobs held in their country of origin. They had improved their status as a result of unauthorized immigration and legalization. Any new legislation should take this experience into account.
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