When Reagan signed IRCA into law, he set in motion a process that allowed undocumented immigrants a chance to "come out of the shadows," as the California Republican put it. Once again, the country finds itself in that position as we consider what to do with some 11 million undocumented immigrants living among us. It's undeniable that this move will have an impact on those who receive legal status, and they in turn will affect the towns and people around them. To know what that might look like, we must look back.
There's evidence 1986 immigration reform helped bolster local economies and filled out the workforce in places. According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants bought homes at much higher rates after IRCA than they did before. They pursued higher education at greater rates, and poverty among the group decreased.
Acceptance into the American community facilitated those changes, according to Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law.
"You don't want to buy a home if you can't put down roots, and you don't want to put down roots if you're not sure you can stay," he said, adding that interracial marriage also increased.
After Ortega became a citizen, his parents and seven siblings moved to Houston legally. His brother Ruben now helps him with the restaurants. Another, Rene, is a mechanic. Other siblings work in markets and at Whole Foods.
The economic effects of IRCA were also significant. As the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council points out, fewer immigrants sent money to their home countries after legalization, and those who did sent back less. They spent more of it in their communities, benefiting local economies. Their wages improved, and workers were more likely to invest in educational opportunities to learn skills that could lead to better jobs. That was particularly true for those who spoke English well, Chishti said. Before IRCA, career advancement had been limited. Afterward, it was a possibility.
IRCA also changed the electorate. According to Chishti, IRCA recipients formed the foundation of what has become today's powerful Latino vote. As they naturalized and became eligible to cast ballots, they registered to vote and became more involved in the political process. Now, several decades later, the political power of Latino voters is clear. Overwhelmingly Democrats, Latinos played a critical role in helping re-elect President Barack Obama and swayed the outcome of some state and local elections.
Ortega is certain that Houston is more prosperous today than it was in the early 1980s and believes immigrants have played a key role in making it so. His early years in the United States were a bit of a whirlwind. He was young, ignorant, and, even though he was one, didn't realize until much later what it mean to be a ghost, to be undocumented. When he meets ghosts now, Ortega tells them to buy property, contribute to the economy, invest money, learn English, study.
Ana Hernandez Luna hasn't met Ortega, although she's dined at his restaurant. But the two have some things in common: Both were born in Mexico and moved to Houston. Both were undocumented for a time. Both have overcome obstacles beyond their control to excel in an environment where not everyone wanted them around.
Her family's decision to overstay their visitor's visa, she said, changed the course of her life.