Guest Blog by Deborah Notkin, AILA Past President

I am getting increasingly impatient with restrictionists and xenophobes opposing a badly needed legalization program by knocking the 1986 Amnesty Program. The problem with the ’86 Amnesty was not that it encouraged future illegal entries to the U.S.  The real problem was that it didn’t institute a realistic temporary and provisional lesser-skilled worker program for future needs.

The primary reason we needed to legalize three million people in 1987 was that we had a shortage of lesser-skilled workers for many industries, including hospitality, healthcare, quarries, assembling, landscaping and agriculture. Our system of work visas has a very limited, seasonal-only visa option for non-professional workers. There is no visa option for non-seasonal occupations that are not being filled by our U.S. workforce. Permanent residence for lesser-skilled positions takes six to eight years, hardly a reasonable wait for a job that must be filled now. Even in today’s recession, there are jobs that go begging. Examples include quarry workers in remote areas of Upstate New York and packers of ready-to-eat fruit and sandwich packs at the New Jersey Shore during tourist season. Ironically, the limited H-2b seasonal visa will most likely reach its numerical bi-annual cap at a faster rate than professional H-1b visas will cap out this year.

So in 1986, we legalized 3 million people. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, the real wages of the newly legalized workers under the 1986 Amnesty increased roughly $4,405 per year for those in lesser-skilled jobs during the first three years of legalization and $6,185 per year for those in higher-skilled positions. Success stories of legalized immigrants abound. They expanded their education, rose up the job ladder, bought homes and sent their children to college. Their increased earning power enhanced the economy of the U.S. In short, they achieved the American dream. Did we really expect them to produce generations of unskilled workers to forever handle that need?

During the debate over the 1986 immigration reform bill, a lesser-skilled visa was discussed but not included in the final bill. Thus there was no cure for the causes of uninspected border crossings – the draw of jobs with no legal options. The crisis of labor shortages during periods of economic prosperity that ensued exacerbated this problem. We need a worker program that works in recessionary periods as well as periods of economic boom. This can easily be done by offering these jobs to U.S. workers at fair wages first and, when there are no takers, having a visa that allows foreign workers to come to fill these jobs at the same wages and protections given to our native workforce. But counterposing a temporary worker program in lieu of amnesty is not a realistic way to deal with the human toll of the undocumented and their deep roots in our country’s economy and families composed of both U.S. workers and undocumented.

Let’s stop opposing legalization by blaming Amnesty as a disaster. Amnesty was an economic success. Rather, let’s give those here illegally a chance to contribute to our economy in the same way that those who were granted Amnesty did so in the past. But let’s also prevent this problem from recurring for a third time. That can be done by curing the cause this time with a reasonable work visa that lets needed workers come here in a safe, legal and orderly fashion.

Let’s relieve the symptoms with a legalization program and create the cure with reform of our dysfunctional system to have visas that make sense for the fluctuating needs of the U.S. economy.