In 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton (formerly known as William Jefferson Blythe III) signed a piece of legislation called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).The legislation itself was part of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of the 104th Congress.
The Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate with Newt Gingrich famously offering his “Contract With America.”
One of the attempts at the time was to bar illegal immigrant children access to public schools. There was a threatened Senate filibuster and presidential veto over the issue and this language was removed to avoid a government shutdown. There was considerable other wrangling with everything eventually piled into IIRIRA.
One of the things IIRIRA does is set a 10 year bar to admissibility for aliens “unlawfully present” [ULP] in the US (those entering the US without any inspection or who overstay a nonimmigrant visa).
Those who are unlawfully present in the US for 180 days but less than a year are barred from being admitted in any legal status in the US for a three year period.
Originally, this was intended to primarily address visa overstays as a stick to make sure people either applied for an extension or left the country before they would be subject to the re-admittance period.
What actually happened? Probably people who were “good hombres” followed the law (which they would have done anyway) and the “bad hombres” ignored the law. After all, as we have seen, without a substantial increase in enforcement, their risk of deportation was low.
It turned out that the greatest effect was on the illegals who were already in the country.
As Kristi Lundstrom at Duke University explained in THE UNINTENDED EFFECTS OF THE THREE- AND TEN-YEAR UNLAWFUL PRESENCE BARS —
Before IIRIRA, undocumented immigrants living in the United States with the possibility of acquiring legal permanent resident (LPR) status could leave the country for consular processing upon qualification for a visa and then return with LPR status. However, that option is no longer available once an immigrant triggers one of the ULP bars. Because undocumented immigrants are generally out of status (often because of overstaying a visa or entering without admission), they are not eligible for adjustments of status from within the United States. But after IIRIRA, consular processing outside the United States is no longer an option for undocumented immigrants with sufficient unlawful presence to trigger the ULP bars, because departing the country is precisely what triggers the bars.
This is the portion of the law that makes it virtually impossible for an illegal alien within the United States to apply for citizenship.
It’s also why the argument of “leave and get in line with everyone else” doesn’t work (as much as you might think that’s ultimately the fair and right thing to do.)