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More than IRCA: U.S. Legalization Programs and the Current Policy Debate
Policy Briefs
December 2010

More than IRCA: U.S. Legalization Programs and the Current Policy Debate

Legalization programs have been an enduring and necessary feature of U.S. immigration law and policy since the nation’s first quota restrictions in the 1920s, and remain a policy option used with some regularity by governments in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere to deal with their unauthorized immigrant populations.

This policy brief shows that more immigrants have been legalized through population-specific and registry programs in the United States than through the general legalization provisions contained in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). With the exception of IRCA's generalized legalization, U.S. legalization programs have targeted discrete groups of unauthorized or temporary residents through population-specific programs and through “registry” programs that cover very long-term unauthorized immigrants.

This policy brief provides an historical overview of U.S. legalization programs, statistics, a primer on the different types of programs, and discussion of the current policy debate.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

A. Defining Legalization

B. Taxonomy of U.S. Legalization Programs

II. The History of U.S. Legalization Programs

A. Registry Programs

B. Population-Specific Legalization Programs

C. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

III.Legalization Programs and the Current Debate

IV. Conclusion