Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants Is Still a Bad Idea

January 22, 2014 Topic: ImmigrationPolitics Region: United States

Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants Is Still a Bad Idea

And the House Republicans' principles for immigration reform should avoid it.

Leaders in the House of Representatives are reportedly about to release “principles” for immigration. If these proposals include amnesty, they will be a step in the wrong direction.

Among other things, their proposals reportedly would include legal status for some of the 11 million or so people in the United States unlawfully. While some have confused the terms “amnesty,” “legal status,” and “path to citizenship,” my Heritage Foundation colleague David Addington explains:

On occasion, proposals arise that would grant amnesty to aliens who have entered the country unlawfully, or who entered lawfully but whose authorization to remain has expired. The term “amnesty” is often used loosely with reference to aliens unlawfully in the United States. Sometimes it refers to converting the status of an alien from unlawful to lawful, either without conditions or on a condition such as a payment of a fee to the government. Sometimes it refers to granting lawful authority for an alien unlawfully in the U.S. to remain in the U.S., become a lawful permanent resident, or even acquire citizenship by naturalization, either without conditions or on a condition such as payment of a fee to the government or performance of particular types of work for specified periods. Amnesty comes in many forms, but in all its variations, it discourages respect for the law, treats law-breaking aliens better than law-following aliens, and encourages future unlawful immigration into the United States.

An amnesty that grants legal status to only some unlawful immigrants is still an amnesty, just a smaller one. An amnesty of any size is unfair, costly, and won’t work. It is unfair to those who played by the rules and entered lawfully, as well as the millions of people currently waiting in our immigration system to be admitted legally. It is costly because even a small amnesty qualifies millions of people for overburdened government welfare and entitlement programs. It won’t work because another amnesty will signal a pattern, since lawmakers already granted amnesty in 1986. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the Senate comprehensive bill (S. 744), which proponents claim has very strict border and enforcement policies, and concluded the bill would not fix the problem. Millions more unlawful immigrants would be in the United States over the next few decades.

To ensure that our nation does not have to confront the problem of millions of people in our midst unlawfully again, it makes more sense to reform the legal immigration system, enhance border security, and concentrate on workplace enforcement. If truly effective measures are put in place, then we can verify that fact by examining census data to determine if people are unlawfully in the United States. Designing legislation that uses as a trigger the fact that new measures have been taken or even put into place, without verifying they actually work, is unwise.

The American people do not trust government to fix the problem while granting amnesty for good reason. Passage of the 1986 amnesty was predicated on it being a one-time event. Promises of workplace enforcement and border security were not adequately kept: we now have some 11 million unlawful immigrants in the United States. A step-by-step approach to immigration reform is not only logical, it has the added benefit of potentially restoring trust. Polling on American’s trust of government shows an unmistakable trend. We’ve gone from 73 percent trust in the Eisenhower era to just 19 percent today.

Just as citizens have reason to doubt government, policymakers in Congress have reasons to not trust President Obama, given his recent activity undermining Congressional authority and the rule of law.

The Obama administration has changed the requirements of the Affordable Care Act on an on-going basis. In the immigration area, trust weakened when the administration decided not to enforce immigration law with respect to hundreds of thousands of people by memorandum. Recently, the President decided that he won’t enforce federal drug laws in states that legalize them. When Congress refused to pass cap-and-trade even under Democratic control, the President decided to use executive power. Policymakers have little reason to trust the President to uphold any newly passed laws given his demonstrated willingness to waive or unilaterally modify the law.

If Congress unwisely does decide to advance the President’s amnesty policies in exchange for their own favored policies, they at least should insist on “trust but verify (through the census).”

Pushing forward an unpopular amnesty policy is misguided. Any public relations reason for doing so has no currency outside the beltway: only three percent of Americans think immigration is the top priority. The President’s insistence on amnesty could sabotage a chance to reform our legal immigration system, enhance enforcement, and secure the border. As explained elsewhere, a workable step-by-step plan would address areas of common agreement first, and leave the most difficult questions for another time.

The same poll that indicated immigration was not the top priority found that the number one priority for the most Americans was dissatisfaction with government. Pushing an unpopular amnesty bill will splinter conservatives and be bad policy to boot. Conservatives in Congress should focus on the economy, jobs, health care, and checking an out-of-control executive branch, not push amnesty.

Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Image: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue. CC BY 2.0.