Recruiting, Talent

What Is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996?

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) is the law that is responsible for the immigration enforcement activities we have today. The general intent of the law was to increase the penalties for being in the United States illegally—in particular if the illegal immigrant committed any crime.


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Here are a few of the key components:

  • The act made it legal to deport any immigrant who commits certain types of crimes—even if that immigrant was otherwise in the United States legally—and expanded the list of crimes that would make someone eligible for deportation. (Bear in mind that the act of being in the United States illegally is itself a civil, not criminal, matter.) These individuals can be deported even without a hearing.
  • The act increased the penalties for certain activities related to assisting illegal immigrants into the country, such as creating false identity documents or smuggling.
  • It created a provision in which anyone who had been in the United States illegally for more than 1 year would be subject to a ban from reentry for 10 years. It also includes a lesser provision of a 3-year ban for illegal stays of less than 1 year. If the individual returned before the end of the ban, he or she could then be banned permanently. These bans were in place even for those immigrants who later could have applied for legal status, such as by marrying a U.S. citizen. (There are exceptions, but they’re difficult to get.)
  • The act had provisions related to border control and enforcement activities near the border.
  • There were also components that affected employers, which we will discuss next.

(Note: This law is over 200 pages long, and this is only a brief outline of several of the major components. Full text of the law can be found here:

How Does the IIRIRA Affect Employers?

The primary way the IIRIRA relates to employers today is that employers have a responsibility to confirm U.S. employment eligibility of any new hire. The IIRIRA actually ended up reducing one aspect of this burden on employers: It allowed for a good-faith exemption from this liability. Before the IIRIRA, employers had strict liability to ensure that their employees were authorized to work in the United States, and if they had an employee that was not, there were penalties for the employer even if the employer had taken every reasonable precaution and action to ensure that all employees were authorized. IIRIRA’s good-faith provision reduced an employer’s liability in the case that it made a good-faith attempt to ensure the individual was authorized to work.

The IIRIRA also indirectly affects employers because it affects the labor market as a whole. While this law is over 20 years old, we’re seeing today that immigration enforcement practices have been stepped up, which will affect everyone. About 16.5% of the U.S. labor force is foreign-born, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics[i]. This means that most employers may see an impact if there are major changes in the number of deportations that happen each year. Employers may need to broaden their search to find qualified employees if the labor market contracts due to fewer people available to work.