More on Immigration and Amnesty

by Andrew C. McCarthy

A reply to some reader reaction to my post a little earlier.

I don’t mean to be obtuse. What Newt said just did not strike me as a big deal. For what little it may be worth, I am opposed to any program that would legalize the presence of illegal aliens — certainly at this premature stage of enforcement and certainly without some stringent conditions. I’ve always thought it was silly for the pro-Amnesty crowd to grouse about how you can’t deport 12 (or 15, or 20 …) million people given that nobody sensible suggests that such a thing is either possible or desirable. Attrition by rational enforcement — targeting the worst offenders and the employment magnet — is the best approach because it is both economical and effective: it would induce illegal aliens to leave on their own (or refrain from coming in the first place), and it would dedicate the very limited resources available for immigration enforcement to the worst part of the problem.

I use the “very limited” advisedly. As I understand it, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only has about 15,000 employees (not agents, employees). The agency has four different divisions, only one of which is involved in enforcement and removal operations. That division has only a few thousand beds in detention centers. So as a practical matter, you have a relative handful of agents confronting millions of illegals. Unless ICE were dramatically expanded — at a cost of billions of dollars — you are simply not going to be able to deport that many people. You’ve got to give them incentive to deport themselves. You also have to exercise discretion about what kind of offender you are going to go after with the limited arsenal at your disposal. The kind of illegal Newt was talking about last night — a relatively law-abiding, long-time resident with an intact family — is not going to be on top of anybody’s list of aliens who ought to be chased down and deported.

In my mind, if you are in the country without authorization and we elect not to use our power to kick you out, you are the recipient of humane treatment and a very valuable benefit. You don’t rate more than that. We simply leave you alone: You don’t get the windfall of some sort of legal status, we don’t make it easier for you to work, and it’s not our job to relieve your anxiety over your status — you brought that anxiety on yourself when you entered or stayed illegally. If being here without authorization is causing you grief, go home and try to come back through the legal process. If you don’t want to do that, you takes your chances — period.

If Newt or anyone else is talking about enacting some sort of regulatory or statutory regime to confer legal status on illegal aliens — even if it is something less than citizenship, a green card, or some sort of visa — I think that’s a bad idea at this stage (and maybe at any stage). That would be a magnet for illegal immigration at a time when we already have millions of illegals here. And if the point is to give humane treatment to longtime residents with intact families, you don’t need a legal regime that would create perverse incentives. You just use prosecutorial discretion, as we’ve discussed. That’s what I took Newt to be arguing because he emphasized that he wanted to be “humane in enforcing the law.” 

Would it ever make sense to have a legal regime? Maybe, but it’s not something we need to decide now. Get back to me in a few years, when: (a) you’ve done enough enforcement and border/visa security that the illegal population is a bare fraction of what it is now, (b) you’ve proved you’re seriously committed to prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens; and (c) you’ve changed the laws so that illegal aliens are not qualified for social welfare benefits. I’m not holding my breath for any of that to happen, but if it does and you could convince me we weren’t doing Simpson-Mazzoli all over again, I’d consider it (not that anyone particularly cares what I think).

One last thing: I said in my earlier post that the Obama administration had refrained from “any meaningful enforcement of the immigration laws.” That was an overstatement. As a couple of readers have pointed out, the administration has reported record high numbers of deportations. To be sure, these reports are inflated — as the Federation for American Immigration Reform points out, the administration’s removals are numerically high only by comparison to the Bush administration, which did not make immigration enforcement a priority; and the vast majority of removals are unrelated to immigration enforcement (as I recommend above, they are concentrating on illegals who violate criminal laws). Because the administration is simultaneously (a) talking about conferring amnesty by executive order, (b) largely ignoring employers, and (c) suing states that try to enforce the immigration laws, President Obama must be said to be encouraging illegal immigration. Still, his administration has deported a fair number of illegal aliens, and I was thus wrong to imply that it was doing nothing in the way of enforcement.