IRCA Anniversary and the Evolution of the "H" Visa Program

Published on December 23rd, 2011

Twenty-five years ago on November 6, 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed the most disastrous immigration bill in the history of the United States: The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Giving amnesty for millions of illegal aliens is what IRCA is most infamous for, but there were insidious provisions in the bill that were equally as damaging but far less publicized. One of the most important was the splitting of the H-2 visa program into H-2A and H-2B. Those two visas were designed to be general purpose cheap labor importation programs for broad varieties of job categories.

IRCA laid the foundation for the H-1B program. Four years later President Bush signed the "Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1990."

Recently, an excellent collection of articles about the IRCA fiasco was published in the Social Contract magazine titled: "America Transformed: The Destructive Legacy of Reagan's 1986 Amnesty." Authors include experts such as Wayne Lutton, Rick Oltman, Otis Graham, and Michael Cutler.

When the editors of Social Contract magazine asked me if I would author an article about IRCA and work visas, I at first thought that there wasn't much to write about. My opinion changed very quickly as I researched the "H" visa aspects of the legislation. As it turns out, IRCA marked a significant change in the policies towards employment based visas. The following excerpts from my published article should whet the appetites of anyone interested in the history of employment based visa programs:

By 1986, the H-2 program was criticized as having similar problems as the Bracero program — it depressed wages and American citizens were losing jobs as they were replaced by nonimmigrant aliens that came into the U.S. legally with H-2 visas. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was enacted to solve all the problems caused by the Bracero program and the H-2 visa.

As a compromise to the farmers, new guest worker programs were created by splitting the H-2 visa into two new categories: H-2A for agricultural laborers and H-2B for non-agricultural.

Agri-businesses were assured that these programs would provide a means for them to continue to exploit plentiful labor supplies from third world nations.

Significantly, the H-2A/B visa programs marked the beginning of the internationalization of the guest worker labor supply and
the broadening of the types of jobs that aliens could be employed for.

"IRCA and the Evolution of the ‘Nonimmigrant’," by Rob Sanchez, Social Contract Magazine, Fall 2011

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