Do Amnesty Programs Encourage Illegal Immigration? Evidence from the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny
Working Paper 2001-19
November 2001

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This paper examines whether allowing certain undocumented immigrants to legalize their status leads to additional illegal immigration. The authors focus on the effects of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to over three million undocumented immigrants. They find that apprehensions of persons attempting to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border declined immediately following passage of the law but returned to normal levels during the period when illegal immigrants could file for amnesty and in the years thereafter. The authors’ findings suggest that the amnesty program did not change long-term patterns of illegal immigration from Mexico.

JEL classification: J61

Key words: undocumented immigrants, illegal aliens, amnesty

The authors thank Gordon Hanson for providing the data on Mexican economic conditions and border enforcement. They also thank Alan Viard and Jason Saving. The views expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System. Any remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.

Please address questions regarding content to Pia M. Orrenius, Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 200 N. Pearl Street, Dallas, Texas 75201, 214-922-5747,, or Madeline Zavodny, Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 1000 Peachtree Street, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30309-4470, 404-498-8977,