Abstract: Evolving Policy Debate over Latino Undocumented Workers in Metropolitan California, 1971-1986

Kelly Kelleher Richter


California liberals formatively shaped American illegal immigration policy debate during the early 1970s by framing Latino undocumented workers as an economic threat to American workers and advocating for criminal penalties on employers hiring them. Over the decade, however, as employer sanctions continued to center debate, many California liberals came to repudiate earlier claims of economic threat and to question employer sanctions' effectiveness and prospective civil rights and liberties costs. They joined some California business-oriented Republicans in stressing Latino undocumented workers' economic contributions and advocating for alternative policies to respond to illegal immigration, yet failed to broach a policy consensus or forge a meaningful bipartisan political coalition to oppose employer sanctions. By the early 1980s, with populist liberal economic claims about Latino illegal immigration entrenched and conservatives more aggressively pressing for immigration law and order, policy proposals to liberalize Latino labor migration on either a permanent or a temporary basis to legally align with employer demand became increasingly politically untenable. The federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 enacted difficult to enforce employer sanctions, among other provisions. By ignoring Latino immigrants' key workforce roles, it would fail to stem continuing illegal immigration.