Continental Amnesties
We should learn a lesson about amnesty from Europe.


Whether or not the U.S. Senate takes up the immigration-reform debate in the coming weeks, it is certain that the subject will be a central issue in the coming electoral season. And the most heated debate will undoubtedly focus on the main proposition of the Kennedy-McCain bill–namely, that amnesty for many, if not most, of the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is a prerequisite for the success of any effective immigration reform. Even though most advocates of this bill would strenuously deny that it is about amnesty, they nonetheless take it as an article of faith that a large-scale amnesty is both essential for and greatly beneficial to America. They are, of course, free to do so, but the rest of us need not make the same mistake. For even if we disregard our own experience with the 1986 amnesty and its various follow-ups, there is a large and growing body of empirical evidence in Europe going back two decades that proves beyond much doubt that amnesties, far from being part of the solution to illegal immigration, in fact contribute to it. It behooves us to pay close attention to it, because, despite a very different historical experience, Europe’s current immigration system is quite similar to ours and is just as dysfunctional.

Unlike America, few countries in Europe have historically been immigrant destinations. Some had a large number of “guest workers” arrive in the 50s and 60s, yet to this day most do not have orderly, long-term immigration programs. Instead, the Europeans have pursued policies that encourage massive illegal immigration and then compound the problem by legalizing it. They do so by providing generous public assistance to illegal immigrants, tolerating large-scale abuse of asylum laws, failing to deport those apprehended, and granting periodic amnesties which trigger ever larger inflows.

As in the U.S., every amnesty is accompanied by earnest assurances that it is the very last one and by promises of a severe crackdown on illegal immigration that will solve the problem once and for all. Invariably, the argument is also made that legalizing the undocumented will bring them into the mainstream economy, providing much needed labor and a major boost in tax revenues for the state. The reality is the exact opposite.

European Union countries legalized approximately 1.75 million immigrants up through 2000, and between 3.5 and 4 million since then. Despite that, illegal immigration is increasing dramatically. Spain carried out four amnesties between 1985 and 2000, and yet, in 2003 it had 1.3 million legal immigrants and more than twice as many illegal ones. A year ago it amnestied yet another 700,000 to no visible reduction of illegal entries. In December, thousands of would-be immigrants stormed the ten-foot-tall, razorblade-wire fences surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. Similarly, between 1986 and 2002, Italy legalized a million and a half immigrants in five separate amnesties without stemming at all the yearly inflow of well over 500,000 illegal immigrants. The same is the case in Portugal, Greece, France, and every other country that practices amnesties. And there is no reason to expect anything different if fully two-thirds of illegal entrants eventually obtain legalization, the odds of deportation are negligible, and the wait for legalization can be spent in the relative comfort of the European welfare system or its illegal economy.

The last point is worth pondering, because it is simply not the case that amnesties bring millions from the underground economy eager to pay the exorbitant taxes the nanny state collects from those working in order to nanny those that are not. The reason there is an underground economy to begin with is because neither employers nor employees are eager to cough up payroll taxes that average 36 percent in the EU. Indeed, with these kinds of confiscatory levies, the often unskilled and uneducated illegal immigrant becomes unemployable in the regular economy. The result is a huge influx of illegal workers in the now-depleted shadow economy, which is one reason it is rapidly growing both in Europe and North America. According to expert estimates, it has more than doubled in the past 20 years and currently ranges from 8.4 percent of GDP in the U.S. to 14.5 percent in France, 16.8 percent in Germany, and nearly one-third of GDP in high immigration countries like Italy.

There is yet another lesson of the amnesty phenomenon in Europe that is of key relevance to our own immigration debate, even if it’s seldom discussed. Figures usually bandied about in amnesty discussions are highly misleading; in practice, legalizing one illegal alien means eventually providing legal entry documents to several times as many. Through family reunification and what demographers call “chain migration,” every legalized immigrant in Europe eventually brings with him three to five of his own immediate family, who in turn bring more relatives. Throw in arranged and fictitious marriages and the migration chain becomes very long indeed. The vast majority of the 1.7 million immigrants who entered the European Union legally last year were just such chain migrants. In the United States itself, chain migration already makes up close to 70 percent of all legal immigration.

Keep that in mind when the politicians tell you that what’s needed is just one more amnesty of ten million illegal aliens. At the very least, the American people deserve to know that the real figure is anywhere between 30 and 50 million.

Alex Alexiev is vice president for research of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.