Amnesty, make no mistake about it, is the cornerstone of the Senate’s immigration bill. Despite its many pages and provisions, the legislation guarantees one thing only: that a population of individuals defined solely on the basis of their illegal status will receive legal status and a privileged path to permanent residency and citizenship.
Everything else in the bill — border security, worker verification, the temporary-worker plan, a new merit-based immigration system — would be contingent on future political decisions. A few amendments around the edges will not change this overriding fact.
If there is any lingering doubt, consider these provisions:
Only illegal aliens are eligible. Title VI creates a new “Z” visa exclusively for illegal aliens, granting legal status to those who have willfully violated U.S. laws and denying that benefit to law-abiding aliens who have played by the rules. Only illegal aliens can qualify. (Section 601 (c)(1))
Legal status is immediate. Section 1 (a) allows probationary Z visas to be issued immediately after enactment, and Section 601 (f)(2) prohibits the federal government from waiting more than 180 days after enactment to begin issuing probationary Z visas. These probationary visas are nearly as good as non-probationary Z visas, giving the alien lawful status, protection from deportation, authorization to work, and the ability to exit and reenter the country with advance permission. (Section 601 (h)(1))
Immigration laws are set aside. Before anyone even applies for a probationary Z visa, the legislation would set aside the immigration laws that currently criminalize the presence of illegal aliens. The bill waives compliance with several laws as a condition for eligibility for the amnesty, including those concerning illegal entry, failure to appear for a removal proceeding, fraud in obtaining a documentation to enter the United States, falsely claiming citizenship, violating terms of a student visa, failure to obtain valid immigration documents, unlawful presence for more than one year, and reentry after having been ordered removed. (Section 601 (d)(2)(A))
A guaranteed path to citizenship. Probationary Z visas could be valid for years, depending on when the government begins issuing non-probationary Z visas (Section 601 (h)(4)). The Z visa can be renewed every four years indefinitely (Section 601 (k)(2)). No later than 8 years after enactment, the Secretary of Homeland Security must determine the number of Z visa holders who are eligible for legal permanent residence (LPR) and grant LPR status to all such persons over the following five years at a rate of 20 percent per year. (Section 503 (f)(2) and Section 501 (b))
Amnesty is unlimited. The bill grants legal status to virtually all of the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens who are in the country today, and there is no cap on the total number of illegal aliens who could receive Z-visa status. Expect a mass influx once the 12-month period for accepting Z-visa applications begins, because the legislation is an open invitation for those intent on U.S. residence to sneak in and present two fraudulent documents indicating that they were here before the beginning of the year.
Like the amnesty bill of 1986, the current Senate proposal would grant legal status to those who have resided illegally in the United States and place them on a privileged path to citizenship. As in 1986, these individuals must pay fees and fines and meet certain conditions. And once again, the granting of legal status is still “amnesty” even if it is conditional and not automatic or does not necessarily end in citizenship.
Requiring a “touchback” (meaning a visit to a consulate outside of the United States) after illegal aliens have received a legal status that gives them a guaranteed return to the United States does not alter this conclusion. Such a requirement does nothing of substance other than impose a minor additional burden on those receiving amnesty.
In short, the bill’s conditions and requirements do not turn amnesty into “earned” legalization or citizenship.
That the Senate bill would grant amnesty is underscored by the very breadth and generosity of that grant. To initially qualify for a Z visa, an illegal alien need only have a job (or be the parent, spouse, or child of someone with a job) and provide two documents suggesting that he was in the country before January 1, 2007, and has remained in the country since then. A bank statement, pay stub, or similarly forgeable record will do — as would a sworn affidavit from a non-relative (Section 601 (i)(2)).
Likewise, if an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent apprehends aliens who appear to be eligible for the Z visa, the agent cannot detain them (Sections 601 (h)(1, 5)). And if an alien in the removal process is “prima facie eligible” for the Z visa, an immigration judge must close any proceedings against the alien and offer the alien an opportunity to apply for amnesty (Section 601(h)(6)).
All of this only makes sense if the main objective is to grant blanket legalization to a massive but innumerable population of illegal aliens. Which is why, despite the grand illusion — despite all the smoke and mirrors, the semantics, and the denials — the undeniable centerpiece of the grand bargain is a grand amnesty.
— Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.