Best Free Reference
Web Site 2007
IRCA: Lessons of the Last US Legalization Program
By Mary G. Powers, Fordham University
Ellen Percy Kraly, Colgate University
William Seltzer, Fordham University
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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US was taken into account, including years in the US 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 study examined the effect of several variables on the immigrants' attainment of moderate occupational status and their degree of occupational mobility. The Nam-Powers Occupational Status Score was used to measure occupational status. It assigns scores to occupations detailed in the Census Occupational Classification System. The scores range from 0-99, based on the average education and earnings of all persons in the occupation and have been updated each decade since the 1960s. The researchers also looked at the results by gender, and for Mexican and non-Mexican immigrants.
In terms of their origins, about 70 percent of the unauthorized immigrants within the sample came from Mexico, with the next largest groups from other developing countries, and the smallest proportion from developed countries. More women than men came from developed countries and from Latin American countries other than Mexico, and a larger proportion of men than women came from African and Asian countries. On average, the immigrants were 22-24 years old when they came to the US and reported a seventh to eighth grade education in 1989, the date of the first survey. There was a relatively large variation in education as well as a wide range of occupations. Because the sample includes so many Mexican immigrants, overall averages were heavily influenced by the characteristics of that group. Immigrants from Asian countries were, on average, better educated and in higher-status occupations than those from Mexico and Central American countries, for example.
Process. About three-quarters of the immigrants in the sample arrived as unauthorized immigrants, presumably without inspection, and about a quarter came with a valid visa of some sort, the terms of which were violated by, for example, overstaying visitors' visas. A higher proportion of men (79 percent) than women (70 percent) entered the United States as unauthorized immigrants. Nearly half (46 percent) the population used some sort of paid help, such as human smugglers, for their entry into the United States. One-half of the Mexicans and nearly two-thirds of the Central Americans entered the United States illegally with help, compared to only 18 percent of people from other developing countries. The majority of those from developed countries (86 percent) entered the United States on a valid visa, compared to just over half of the migrants from developing countries other than Mexico and the Central American region. Approximately 11 percent of the people from developing regions other than Mexico or Central America were students who either overstayed or violated the terms of their student visas in some other way.
The relatively large number of people from Mexico and Central America who received help with entry suggested that many may have been promised a job by someone before they came to the United States. Only five percent, however, indicated they had been promised their first job prior to coming to the United States. Most came looking for work.
Experience. Once in the United States, the unauthorized immigrants quickly found work; almost 80 percent of the men and 65 percent of the women reported that they had found a job within the first year. At the time they applied for legalization, they reported being in the United States about 10 years, on average. Also at application, only five percent of the men and 33 percent of the women were not in the labor force. Among those who were in the labor force, 98 percent of the men and 95 percent of the women were employed. Many had learned English by the time they applied for legalized status; on a self-evaluation scale of language proficiency ranging from one to seven, most scored themselves around the middle; men reported greater proficiency than women. In addition, about 12 percent of both men and women had obtained some education in the United States between time of application and time of re-interview in 1992.
When they applied for legalization in 1987, only 56 percent of men and 59 percent of women reported a spouse or partner present, compared to 70 percent and 66 percent, respectively, in 1992. The average size of households was about five persons at the time of the interview in 1989 as well as in 1992.
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 US 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 US, 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US labor force. Among the results indicated by analyzing more than one variable in combination:
Implications for Policy Makers
- 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 US 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 US 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.
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 US 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 US 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.
Hagan, J. M. 1994. Deciding to be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston. Philadelphia, PA. Temple University Press.
Jasso, G., D.S. Massey, M. R. Rosenzweig and J. P. Smith. 2000a. "The New Immigrant Survey Pilot (NIS-P): Overview and New Findings about U.S. Legal Immigrants at Admission." Demography 37(1): 127-138.
Kraly, Ellen Percy, William Seltzer, and Mary G. Powers. 2000. "U.S. immigration policy and immigrant immigration: Occupational mobility among the population legalizing under IRCA." In Lydio F. Tomasi and Mary G. Powers (Eds.) Immigration Today: Pastoral and Research Challenges, ch. 7. New York: Center for Migration Studies.
Powers, Mary G. and William Seltzer. 1998. "Occupational Status and Mobility among Undocumented Immigrants by Gender." International Migration Review 32(1):21-55.
Powers, Mary G., William Seltzer, and Jing Shi. 1998. "Gender Differences in the Occupational Status of Undocumented Immigrants in the United States: Experience Before and After Legalization." International Migration Review 32(4):1015-1046.
Singer, Audrey, and Douglas S. Massey. 1998. "The Social Process of Undocumented Border Crossing Among Mexican Migrants," International Migration Review 32 (3): 561-592.
Tienda, M. and A. Singer. 1995. "Wage Mobility of Undocumented Workers in the United States." International Migration Review 29(1):112-138.
Back to the top
If you have questions or comments about this article, contact us at
2002-2013 Migration Policy Institute.
All rights reserved.
Migration Information Source, ISSN 1946-4037
MPI · 1400 16th St. NW, Suite 300 · Washington, DC 20036
ph: (001) 202-266-1940 · fax: (001) 202-266-1900