Requirements in other amnesty proposals, including the Schumer-Rubio bill, for large fines or permanent non-citizen status are punitive window dressing, designed exclusively to help get legislation passed. The fines will be waived, the permanent non-citizen status upgraded to full green cards after a few years. The real goal should in any case not be punishment but confession and absolution. All amnesty beneficiaries should have to participate in public ceremonies where they read aloud a confession (preferably in their native tongue) along the lines of: “I acknowledge that I showed disrespect to America’s laws and have no right to remain in the United States. But having put down roots here, I humbly ask the American people to forgive my trespasses and accept me as a legal resident of their country. If accepted, I will strive to be worthy of this generosity, so help me God.” Such a secular sacrament of confession should close the book on their illegal status.
The corollary to amnestying certain illegal aliens is that all those who do not qualify must be removed. No amnesty applicant should be notified by mail as to the disposition of his case; rather, he must appear in person, and if rejected, immediately be taken into custody and sent home. Any encounter with the authorities, no matter how minor, that reveals the illegal status of one of the much-reduced number of remaining (or new) illegals must result in deportation. Amnesty can be justified only as a transition to meticulous and aggressive enforcement.
The other half of the bargain is reduced future immigration. This is the precise opposite of current proposals. When the House GOP leadership talks of “reforms to visa programs,” what it means is increases in “temporary” worker programs for farmers, tech companies, and other special interests. The Schumer-Rubio bill would double legal immigration and nearly double admissions of guest workers.
Such increases are essentially pork-barrel measures; businesses get cheap, controllable labor, and ethnic-chauvinist groups get a never-ending supply of people through family immigration that they can claim to speak for. But the principled argument offered for these huge increases in legal immigration is that they’re the only way to end illegal immigration. Advocates claim that there’s nothing that can be done to stop foreigners from moving here, so by letting in everyone who wants to come, we — by definition — no longer have to worry about illegal immigration. As New York University professor Jorge Castañeda put it to me during a recent television appearance, we must not only amnesty past immigrants but future ones as well.
If you accept the premise that immigration control is impossible, then numerical or category limits are indeed irrelevant. But if you accept that immigration can be controlled, then it’s necessary to decide whom and how many to admit. We currently take in 1.1 million legal immigrants each year, the large majority simply because they have relatives here. This number should be reduced, for several reasons.
Most immediately, cuts to legal immigration are called for to offset the amnesty. Cutting immigration in half, to roughly 500,000 a year, would mean it would take twelve years to offset the legalization of 6 million illegal aliens. Offsets like this have been used in immigration law before; the unskilled-worker category was reduced in 1997 for as long as it took to offset an amnesty for various Central American illegal aliens.
But a simple offset concedes that the existing immigration level of 1 million–plus per year is acceptable. On the contrary, high levels of legal immigration in themselves create high levels of illegal immigration. The two figures have risen together, and for immigrants from the same countries, because legal immigration creates the networks and connections that make illegal immigration possible. What’s more, in our system a huge number of relatives of immigrants qualify on paper to immigrate but are put on waiting lists because of numerical caps in various immigration categories; many of them just come anyway and wait for their number to come up. This is especially important in the wake of an amnesty. It’s bad enough to have rewarded illegal aliens, but to reward their relatives with legal-immigration slots is galling and indefensible.
The more fundamental problem with mass legal immigration, however, is that it’s an anachronism, something we’ve outgrown. As a young nation settling the land and later industrializing, we could successfully make use of a large number of new workers from abroad, though even in the past immigration created great social turmoil. But we are today a very different, more mature, nation. Our post-industrial, knowledge-based economy offers fewer opportunities for advancement to legal newcomers with little education, at the same time that our own less-educated are under great stress. A modern welfare state means that less-skilled legal workers, who necessarily earn low wages, create huge costs to taxpayers. Modern transportation and communications, combined with a post-national American elite, mean that immigrants — even skilled immigrants — have less need to assimilate and join the American people emotionally rather than just on paper. In short, mass immigration is incompatible with contemporary society.
Many of the concerns people express regarding illegal immigration are actually about immigration as a whole, most of which is legal. Most illegal immigrants work on the books for more than minimum wage — so job competition faced by less-skilled Americans has less to do with legal status and more to do with simple numbers. Likewise with welfare; illegals collect benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children but are ineligible themselves, whereas legal immigrants use a much wider array of taxpayer-funded services. The same dynamic is true with the increase in poverty, in economic inequality, in the growth in the uninsured — legal immigration has a much larger impact than illegal.
A lower level of overall immigration would tighten the labor market, ease pressure on welfare and the health and education systems, and promote assimilation — goals that are all important in themselves, but especially important to the absorption of the amnestied illegal population. In addition to the benefits to the country, curbing immigration would help the political prospects of conservatism, given the mountain of data showing that immigrants are overwhelmingly big-government liberals.
To summarize, in exchange for amnesty, the following legal-immigration reforms — which together would cut legal immigration by about one-half — are called for: Family immigration should be limited to the spouses and unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens; skilled immigration should be limited to the top talent in the world; humanitarian immigration — refugees and asylum seekers — should be limited to the truly desperate who have nowhere else to go, as is not the case with the bulk of the current flow; the visa lottery should be ended; and guest-worker programs should be eliminated — they not only exploit workers and undercut Americans, but are vehicles of illegal immigration, as the Congressional Budget Office report on the Senate bill acknowledged.
If House Republicans want to offer a choice rather than an echo, they’d do well to consider the alternative to the Senate plan sketched here: enforcement first, followed by a combination of amnesty and greatly reduced immigration.
— Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. This article was adapted from one that appeared in the February 10 issue of National Review.