VoxEU Column Migration

US immigration reform and migration dynamics of Mexican males

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was the first major reform intended to control and deter illegal immigration to the US through legalisation of unauthorised immigrants, increased border security, and sanctions on employers that hired unauthorised immigrants. This column uses data from an annual survey of Mexican households to show that the Act had a negative and significant effect on undocumented migration. However, since the Act’s legalisation programme was active for only a few years, its long-term effects appear to have been limited.

Immigration policies restrict people from other countries from entering the host country. There is a range of these policies – from quotas that establish a maximum number of work and residence permits, to admission criteria – that limit access (Boeri and van Ours 2013). During a large part of the 20th century US immigration was restricted through quotas. More recently, it has largely been determined by family considerations, because entry visas were assigned to those who had family members already in the US (Daniels 2002). The annual number of immigrants to the US increased from a quarter of million in the 1950s, to nearly half a million in the 1970s, and close to 1 million in the 1990s.

In the same time period, there was also big change in the source of immigration. There has been a sharp rise in immigration from Asia and Mexico, and a big increase in unauthorised immigration, especially from Mexico (Clark et al. 2007).

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was the first major legislative reform aimed at tackling the growth of unauthorised immigrants. It was intended to control and deter illegal immigration to the US through legalisation of unauthorised immigrants, increased border security, and sanctions on employers that hired unauthorised immigrants. Under its legalisation programme, 2.7 million individuals – more than half of the unauthorised immigration population at the time – received permanent resident status, most of them during the years 1990 and 1991. About 70% of the applicants under the IRCA legalisation program were immigrants from Mexico (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Legal residence permit holders admitted annually from Mexico

Source: Mexican Migration Project.

As part of the IRCA, the budget allocated for Border Patrol increased by more than 80%, border enforcement staff increased by 50% and total time spent by officers on border patrol activities increased modestly (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Border enforcement

Source: Mexican Migration Project.

In 1994, the number of border enforcement staff as well as the time spent on border patrol activities started to increase rapidly. The IRCA introduced, for the first time in the US, employer sanctions for hiring unauthorised immigrants. This potentially affected 7 million employers in the US. With the introduction of the IRCA, employers were required to verify and record the identities and work permits of the employees they hired. After a two-year public education period, employer sanctions came into effect in 1988. Due to fear of discrimination against foreign workers, however, the employers’ burden of verification was relatively small, and enforcement of the policy declined. Despite the implementation of the IRCA, the number of illegal migrants residing in the US continued to grow and has stabilised at about 11 million since 2005 (Passel and Cohn 2016).

Measuring the effect of the IRCA

Analysis of undocumented immigrant apprehension levels at the US-Mexican border by Orrenius and Zavodny (2003) and White et al. (1990) showed that they fell for a short period following the IRCA, but reverted to the pre-IRCA levels afterwards. Donato et al. (1992) analysed the trend of first and repeat migration and apprehension levels after the IRCA. Their study indicated that the IRCA did not affect the rate of migration to the US, and did not change repeat migration patterns either.

Several studies on the general migration dynamics of migrants in the US differentiated between individuals whose trips started before and after the IRCA, with mixed conclusions. Reyes (2001) and Li (2016) found that the duration of the trips that Mexican migrants made increased after the IRCA, while Quinn (2014) found no change. This does not measure the effect of the IRCA on the migrants whose trip started before the policy, but lasted long enough to be affected by it.

In recent work, we measure the effects of the IRCA on the migration rate from Mexico to the US, and the return migration rate from the US to Mexico, using a rich survey dataset provided by the Mexican Migration Project (MMP) (Altangerel and van Ours 2017a, b). Our first study (Altangerel and Van Ours 2017a) studies all immigrants. The second, which we focus on here, studies male immigrants in particular.

The data are an annual survey of Mexican households conducted by a team of researchers based at the University of Guadalajara and Princeton University. They began in 1982, and cover 154 communities in 24 states out of 32 in Mexico (the database and codebook are available from

We study the effect of the immigration policy on the age of onset of migration, and the duration of the first migration spell, using hazard rate analysis. This has the advantage of allowing time-varying variables to affect an individual's behaviour over time. It also takes into account the behaviour of an individual, which may change as the individual gets older, or as the trip progresses.

  • Time-invariant variables include education at the time of the survey, birth year, and the relative size of the migrant community in the US.
  • Time-varying variables are the share of male labour force in manufacturing and the percentage of the municipality labour force earning more than double the minimum wage in the origin community in Mexico.
  • We also include the one-period lagged unemployment rate of the Hispanic and Latino population in the US, to control for time-varying labour demand factors,

The IRCA appears to have had a negative and significant effect on undocumented migration. It decreased the conditional probability of undertaking an undocumented trip to the US by about 13%. The effect of the IRCA on legal migration was positive, but it did not differ significantly from zero. To illustrate the magnitude of some determinants and the effects of the IRCA on unauthorised migrants, we perform simulations of undocumented migration rates by age 30, based on the characteristics of the median male migrant. For the median migrant, the unauthorised migration probability by age 30 was about 44% before, and 40% after, the IRCA, a drop of 4 percentage points.

The simulation shows important wage effects. Before the IRCA, if the share of the population earning more than double the minimum wage increased from the 25th to the 75th percentile, undocumented migration probability by age 30 goes down by about 12 percentage points. There was also a big effect from migrant networks. An increase in the migration network ratio from the 25th to the 75th percentile led to an approximately 18.5 percentage point increase in undocumented migration by age 30.

There was a large effect from US labour market conditions. If the Hispanic/Latino unemployment rate increased from its 25th to the 75th percentile, undocumented migration rates would fall by about 5.5 percentage points. We also find that the IRCA had increased the return migration rate from an unauthorised trip in the first decade after migration. However, the effect is not significant once we exclude males in agriculture. IRCA did not have significant effects on the rate of legal migration or the duration of the first legal migration trip.

Table 1 Predicted undocumented migration rates by age 30

Notes: The table shows predicted migration rates by or at age 30 before and after IRCA for a selection of individuals in Mexico. All numbers are in percentages. The median characteristics are taken to be as follows (median of the sample): He is born in 1967, has nine years of education at the time of the survey, and comes at age 14 from a community where 5% of household heads are in the US. He comes from a community of a population of 5,000, where 26% of male labour force work in manufacturing, and 27% of workers earn above double the minimum wage. During the observation period, the median US unemployment rate for men of Hispanic/Latino origin was 8.85% and about 20,000 unauthorised Mexican migrants were deported in a year. He comes from the state Jalisco. Before (after) IRCA estimations assume that the entire spell is unaffected (affected) by IRCA.

The long-run effect of the IRCA

The IRCA affected unauthorised migration to the US largely through its legalisation programme; border enforcement and employee sanctions were largely ineffective. This could be due to several factors. Reyes (2007) found that border enforcement was positively associated with undocumented migration, and suggested that a high level of enforcement is necessary for it to be effective. Massey and Espinosa (1997) argued that pre-emptive migration might explain ineffective border policy if individuals undertook migration sooner to pre-empt further increases in border enforcement. Gathmann (2008) found that migrants changed their route of entry when border enforcement did not increase evenly in all places.

Since this legalisation programme was active for only a few years, the long-term effects of the IRCA have probably been limited. In the two decades following the IRCA, the number of unauthorised immigrants increased three-fold, and the duration of stay increased as well. Research on the effect of IRCA has reached the conclusion that, if IRCA has been effective, it was in the short period immediately after the IRCA. It was not effective in reducing unauthorised immigration in the long term (Orrenius and Zavodny 2003). On this evidence, we agree.


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Altangerel, K and J C van Ours (2017b), "US immigration reform and the migration dynamics of Mexican males", mimeo.

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