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1986 law helped lay foundation for 'governing immigration through crime'

Jonathan Inda
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L. Brian Stauffer

Jonathan Inda, a professor of Latina/Latino studies at Illinois, says the reform legislation being proposed in Congress offers little change from current policies heavy on enforcement – policies that can be traced to the last major immigration reform act in 1986.

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4/22/2013 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Three key issues were at the center of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act: money for border enforcement, a pathway to citizenship and making it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

But another provision of the IRCA, often overlooked, has had far-reaching consequences, leading to the rash of immigrant deportations in recent years, more than 400,000 last year alone, says Jonathan Inda, a professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois, in an article for the journal Migration Studies.

That provision called for the quick deportation of “criminal aliens,” understood to be immigrants (both undocumented and legal) convicted of serious crimes, Inda said.

It helped lay the foundation, however, for subsequent programs, laws and policies that have criminalized immigration more generally and cast a “criminal dragnet” over the country, according to Inda, also a co-editor, with Latina/Latino studies faculty colleague Julie Dowling, of “Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader,” recently published by Stanford University Press.

Essentially the task of border security has been extended into the U.S. interior, making it all a “seamless security space,” Inda said – or a “continuum of border security,” in the words of one federal official in a 2006 report.

Law and order measures have become the preferred means for governing undocumented immigrants and other marginal populations, he said.

“For the most part in any given year, the majority of people who end up in deportation are people who have no criminal record, just people who happen to be undocumented,” Inda said.

Of course, in the controversy over immigration, one person’s “undocumented” immigrant is another person’s “illegal” immigrant, who has broken the law just by entering the country.

What Inda lays out in his paper, however, is how the “criminal alien” provision of the 1986 law has been built upon, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. At first, federal programs worked with state and local law enforcement to identify the more serious criminal offenders within their prisons. Now, however, those programs enlist local police as proxy immigration officials.

Likewise, legislation since 1986 has increased the number and types of crimes that can bring about deportation, extending even to certain misdemeanors, Inda said.

“Noncitizens currently being deported as ‘criminal aliens’ are thus not necessarily what one would call hardened criminals who represent a threat to the public’s safety, but more often than not are low-level, non-violent offenders,” he said.

 “The logic is that they’re only going to commit more crimes,” he said, and it disregards research showing that the crime rate is much lower among immigrants than the native-born population.

Even those brought to the U.S. as children, who might otherwise qualify for the proposed DREAM Act and for the “deferred action” implemented by President Obama in 2012, can be deported if convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors, Inda said.

The programs and changes in law “have fundamentally changed the nature of immigrant policing,” Inda said. An undocumented immigrant who gets caught for jaywalking could end up in deportation proceedings, as could the woman who calls the police to report domestic abuse, he said.

“It really has increased the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants hugely, and created a great distrust between the immigrant community in general and the police,” he said.

The immigration reform legislation being proposed in Congress appears unlikely to change this emphasis on enforcement, Inda said. “They’re continuing the same policies that they’ve undertaken since 1986,” he said. “For me, it’s really hard to see how it’s actually reform.”

Editor's note: To contact Jonathan Inda, call 217-244-3788; email

Inda’s Migration Studies article, “Subject to Deportation: IRCA, ‘Criminal Aliens,’ and the Policing of Immigration,” is available online.

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