How Immigration Reform Has Changed Us Once Before

"I don't think any of us know, frankly," Chishti said. "Imagine the enormity of the population this time. It's so different. It's 11.2 million potential new voters, eventually."

According to the Immigration Policy Center report, nearly 87 percent of IRCA recipients lived in only four states: California, Texas, Illinois and New York. Those states still have sizeable immigrant populations that could gain legal status if immigration reform passes, but now so do places like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Some critics argue the growth of the undocumented population is a direct result of IRCA. The Migration Policy Institute noted in a report, for instance, that some analysts believe it spurred further illegal immigration.

"The five-year gap between the qualifying date and the date of the law's enactment left many settled immigrants in the country without status, and critics charged that the law increased the incentive for people to migrate in hopes of future amnesties."

Critics of immigration reform today have a valid concern in wondering whether a new plan will truly curb illegal immigration. That's why some Republican members of the Senate "Gang of Eight," which has introduced a comprehensive immigration proposal, have said they will not consider any plan that does not prioritize efforts to secure the border.

There are also other criticisms of IRCA that make lawmakers today wary of a sweeping reform bill. MPI pointed out allegations of fraud in the seasonal agricultural workers program that helped more than one million IRCA recipients gain legal status. Lawmakers also worry that immigrants could take public assistance funding away from citizens, a concern that also existed in the 1980s. Many states now have rules in place that bar newly legalized permanent residents from receiving benefits. IRCA also gave funding to states to help offset some of the cost of providing care for newly authorized residents. The gang's bill would prevent newly legalized immigrants from receiving most federal benefits for years.

While there are bound to be some similarities between any new immigration reform and IRCA, as MPI points out, there will be differences too. The immigrant population is better documented, so the impacts will be better chronicled. The population is larger, but more spread out, so while immigration reform might be more widely felt, the impact might be more muted. Agriculture is no longer the major employer of undocumented workers, so other industries will be affected as well. And MPI argues that international cooperation with Mexico is more realistic today, so their collaboration on the issue is more likely.

Chishti thinks this last point is key. Immigration from Mexico is close to net zero at the moment.

"Something's happening," he said, "and it's not just the recession."

According to Chishti, education has become more accessible in Mexico. Engineering has become popular, and the country is now a huge software exporter. There are more incentives to stay and fewer reasons to risk crossing the border.

But that doesn't change much for the roughly 11 million who already call the United States home. Ortega and Hernandez Luna are looking at President Obama to change the lives of this group.

"I know there are many families out there similar to mine," she said, "waiting for the opportunity given to my family to be able to reach their dreams and give back to their communities."

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