Why Amnesty Is the Wrong Way to Go

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

August 12, 2001

A liberal columnist depicts them as “living in the shadows.” A conservative commentator calls them a “huge, subterranean population” that exists in fear of one day being “whisked away by government agents.” A Los Angeles religious leader bemoans their exploitation at the hands of “unscrupulous employers” who know they “are reluctant to seek legal recourse.”

But are they? Contrast those characterizations of illegal immigrants in the United States with these actual events: Outside Phoenix, dozens of female illegal immigrants march in protest against their employer, whom they accuse of sexual harassment. An illegal immigrant and labor activist from Houston travels to Washington to meet openly with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Justice Department officials. In Los Angeles, the labor movement comes back from the brink of extinction by successfully organizing illegals employed as janitors and hotel service workers. Countless news stories highlight illegal immigrants as proud homeowners, successful businesspeople and ambitious high school graduates openly seeking admission to California’s public universities.

Which of these two starkly different perspectives on the lives of the estimated 6 million to 9 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. is more accurate? Almost certainly the second. Yet in the weeks and months ahead, it is the first that will be emphasized as some promote amnesty to the American public as the key to bringing order to our immigration policy. This is troublesome, because amnesty is a bad idea both as policy and as politics.

Amnesty—the granting of formal legal status to those who live here illegally and are therefore subject to deportation—is being pushed by those who stand to benefit the most from it, chiefly immigrant advocates, unions and the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox. Democratic leaders in Congress are also enthusiastic about some sort of legalization program. Yet to many illegal aliens, amnesty offers less than meets the eye. And to Americans anxious about the illegal influx into the country, it is more like a poke in the eye.

This is clearly why the Bush administration, which initially grasped at the idea of amnesty, has recently begun to waffle on the issue and prefers talking in terms of a “guest worker” program. But even that program is likely to contain terms that will allow for the eventual legalization of some of the undocumented workers now in the country. Amnesty is the compassionate component in the administration’s conservative pitch to Hispanics. And even though the degree of compassion in amnesty is greatly exaggerated and its political benefit to Bush steadily shrinking, the White House will find it all but impossible to abandon the idea of amnesty now that it has been put on the table.

Amnesty may seem, on the surface, to be a reasonable measure, but what specific problems facing illegals does it redress? Research has shown that undocumented immigrants get paid less than other workers. But the research also attributes this fact not to the immigrants’ legal status, but to their youth, their low education and skill levels, their limited English proficiency and their short stints with specific employers. In fact, there is a considerable body of research indicating that the well-being of immigrants is less a function of their legal status than of the length of time they have been in the United States. The problems that beset undocumented immigrants diminish as they cease to become transients (whether moving around in the U.S. or back and forth to Mexico), settle down in more stable jobs and neighborhoods, pick up skills and begin to familiarize themselves with English. And of course, the more time illegals spend here, the more adept they become at avoiding the INS.

This last point is particularly telling, because most of this research was done when there was much more intensive interior enforcement by the INS than there is today, when the bulk of the agency’s efforts are concentrated at the border. With interior enforcement virtually nil, it’s ironic that the issue of amnesty should surface now. And it makes the AFL-CIO’s proposed Immigrants Freedom Ride—a replay of the civil rights movement’s freedom rides, with busloads of illegals from across the nation converging on Washington—look like an effort to provoke the federal government into actually enforcing immigration laws in the interior.

I’m not suggesting that illegal immigrants don’t experience problems, sometimes serious ones. And it’s obvious that most illegals would seize the opportunity to become legal. But all the research underscores that being illegal is not the all-encompassing, debilitating condition it is usually depicted as being.

So if amnesty doesn’t benefit the illegals that significantly, what are the politics driving the issue? The Bush administration’s motives are the most transparent: the need for a president with weak foreign policy credentials to respond to the historic initiatives of his reform-oriented Mexican counterpart. Bush also wants to sell himself to Hispanics and thereby improve his electoral prospects in 2004.

The amnesty issue is equally important to immigrant advocates and unions. For the latter, in particular, it would undeniably make organizing immigrants easier. But as recent history indicates, the unions don’t need amnesty to mount successful organizing drives among illegals. Amnesty is, however, a concrete, highly visible, and attainable benefit for which they can readily claim credit among their growing constituencies.

Yet precisely because amnesty may not be as important to immigrants (as opposed to their leaders) as many believe, Bush may not get as much political payoff from his initiative as he originally thought. It’s certainly debatable whether amnesty is the kind of issue that would result in many Mexican Americans, who tend to vote mostly Democrat, switching to the Republicans in 2004.

What amnesty will do is provoke a backlash against immigrants, something that would definitely not help Bush. As Alan Wolfe points out in his book “One Nation, After All,” the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants “is one of the most tenaciously held distinctions in middle-class America; the people with whom we spoke overwhelmingly support legal immigration and express disgust with the illegal variety.” Opinion surveys confirm that Americans routinely exaggerate by a wide margin the proportion of all immigrants who are here illegally.

Anxieties about being besieged by illegals will be fueled by the misleading picture painted by amnesty advocates of a clandestine underclass that must be brought into the mainstream. The danger of a backlash is all the more real given the almost certain consequence of an amnesty: more illegal immigration. Common sense suggests as much. So does our experience after amnesty was granted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and illegal immigration burgeoned. And if the economy continues to slow down, then the impact of such factors will be all the greater.

Still, to many Americans, amnesty in some form seems reasonable. People who have lived and worked here for a prolonged period of time, established businesses, and raised families do build up compelling claims on the rest of us, especially since we have not seen fit to enforce our immigration laws more rigorously. As conservative commentator Linda Chavez puts it, amnesty is “the moral thing” to do. Yet standing on equally moral ground, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm argues that amnesty would only reward “lawlessness.”

But what we need here is a lot less high-mindedness, on all sides, and more realism—including some backlash insurance. In the 1986 immigration law, amnesty was counter-balanced by sanctions against businesses that hire illegals, which unfortunately were never adequately enforced. Perhaps stiffer, more meaningful employer sanctions should be put on the table now. Or maybe we should talk about reviving the alien registration program, which required aliens to verify their addresses by mailing a postcard to the federal government every January, a law the Reagan administration allowed to expire in the early 1980s.

But some sort of reasonable demands should be placed on amnesty beneficiaries to reassure the American public that immigration is not out of control, and that those who have jumped the queue are not simply being rewarded. Such demands need not be punitive. For example, mandatory English-language classes, which immigrants need and which most Americans would be happy for them to take, could become part of such a deal.

If we were really serious about our immigration problems, we would shelve amnesty, which sends the wrong signals to everyone—immigrants, their advocates and immigration opponents. Instead, we could address specific problems facing illegals without directly confronting their legal status, which amnesty necessarily involves. For instance, we could grant reduced, in-state tuition at public universities to otherwise eligible applicants who are illegals. More states could do what a few already do and issue drivers’ licenses to illegals.

None of this would make illegals legal. We would have to continue to live with the ambiguity of having all these illegal immigrants in our midst. But the alternative of amnesty would only make matters worse.

If, however, there is to be an amnesty, then the American public needs to feel that it is getting something in return. Right now, the deal that is looming is one between immigrant advocates and unions on the one hand, and employers—especially agricultural employers—on the other. The former get amnesty, the latter a “guest worker program,” meaning fresh infusions of unskilled labor. Bush and Fox get to be statesmen. But the American people get nothing, except the illusion that a serious public policy problem has been addressed.

Peter Skerry, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.