From la migra to el amigo : the INS' campaign to befriend undocumented immigrants during IRCA



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Before the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the relationship between undocumented immigrants and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was highly antagonistic. Undocumented immigrants were distrustful of the immigration service due to its deportation mission that implemented deceitful tactics, which included using immigrant children to lure their undocumented parents and sending letters to immigrants promising legalization only to deport them once they arrived to INS offices among many others. However, this changed for a brief period after the passage of IRCA when INS transformed its image in the eyes of immigrants and became their amigo – their friend. INS accomplished this by engaging in a furious public relations campaign and training their staff to be supportive of immigrants as they applied for legal status – unprecedented measures for an agency that was set on deporting immigrants. Immigrants began to trust INS and went to them for help to get legalization during IRCA, something that experts thought would be impossible. While the literature on IRCA has studied its legislative history, short-term effects and long-term impact, it has overlooked the central question this study analyzes: why did INS implement unprecedented measures to help undocumented immigrants attain legalization? Using congressional hearings on INS, interviews and public statements made by INS officials, institutional evaluations of IRCA’s implementation, news articles and secondary data, I show that INS was going through a legitimation crisis, meaning that Congress and other overseeing institutions questioned INS’ effectiveness and management leading to stagnation in INS’ growth, something INS wanted to change. Implementing the legalization component of IRCA successfully was one way in which INS could regain its standing in the eyes of Congress, which meant helping immigrants attain legal status. In other words, the interests of immigrants and INS converged during IRCA leading to a change in INS’ behavior. To understand this process, this study shows how INS went from being la migra (immigration services) to el amigo of undocumented immigrants during IRCA.