The Senate is currently debating S. 1348, a so-called comprehensive immigration bill. The centerpiece of this legislation is the offer of amnesty, access to welfare, and ultimately citizenship to at least 12 million illegal aliens currently in the U.S.
With the exception of convicted criminals and deportees, the bill grants amnesty to nearly everyone who was illegally inside the U.S. on Jan. 1, 2007. These individuals are given a new “Z visa” which confers the legal right to remain in the U.S., and can be renewed automatically for the rest of the illegal immigrant’s life. Eight years after enactment, the government will begin bestowing green cards (or legal permanent residence status) on all Z visa holders who want them; five years later, amnesty recipients are free to become citizens through the normal naturalization process.
Although proponents of this amnesty suggest that illegal immigrants will be required to return home, in reality, Z visa holders are merely required to go abroad for a single afternoon when they apply for legal permanent residence, and they are permitted to return automatically and immediately to the U.S. Proponents claim that illegal immigrants must go to the back of the line before getting citizenship. In fact, Sections 501 and 503 of Title V of the bill create a privileged admission queue reserved for former illegal immigrants alone. This select queue leads directly to legal permanent residence and citizenship. Amnesty recipients will proceed smoothly down this reserved path to citizenship without ever competing with others who seek to enter and live in the U.S. lawfully.
Three months after passage of the bill, illegal aliens can apply for probationary Z status. With that status they will be given a Social Security number and will begin to earn credit for future Social Security and Medicare benefits. Access to welfare is delayed, but within 10 to 12 years after passage, formal illegal immigrants will become eligible for nearly all 60 federal means-tested welfare programs.
Some 75 to 85 percent of illegal immigrants who will get amnesty under S. 1348 have only a high-school education or less. Fifty to sixty percent do not have a high school education. Although former illegal immigrants will have limited access to welfare for the first ten years after amnesty, welfare use through the rest of their lives will be heavy. Children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants will be eligible for all welfare from the moment of birth.
Since the bill grants illegal immigrants access to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, it will prove particularly expensive for taxpayers when former illegal immigrants reach retirement. On average, each amnesty recipient will impose a net cost of over $300,000 on taxpayers during retirement years. If 12 million illegal immigrants are given amnesty, the net cost to the taxpayers when the adults reach retirement age will be around $2.6 trillion. At their peak level, amnesty recipients will expand the number of beneficiaries under Social Security by 5 to 10 percent. This will occur at a point when Social Security will already be running deficits over $200 billion annually.
Amnesty is not only expensive; it shows contempt for U.S. law and is manifestly unfair. It gives the inestimable gift of U.S. citizenship to millions of individuals whose only qualification for receiving it is that they broke U.S. laws. Consider that on Jan. 1, 2007, there were hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the U.S. on a variety of temporary visas. Because these individuals were here lawfully, none will be granted citizenship under S. 1348. By contrast those who were in the U.S. illegally on that same day will be given the privilege of citizenship.
Consider two foreigners who were here on temporary visas that expired in December 2006. One of these individuals lawfully returned home upon expiration of his visa; the other chose to remain in the U.S. unlawfully. Under S. 1348, which of these individuals will be granted the privileges and benefits of citizenship? Answer: the one who broke our laws. Meanwhile the individual who respected our laws and returned home will remain abroad and will have little chance for citizenship. Is this fair? Of all the people in the world who wish to come to America, why should we feel compelled to grant citizenship to a group whose sole qualification is that they broke our laws?
President Bush ceaselessly protests that the Senate bill is not amnesty. In a certain sense, he is right: The bill goes way beyond amnesty. The root of the word “amnesty” is to forget. In a normal amnesty the crime is “forgotten” and penalties are waived. S. 1348 goes far beyond waiving penalties for all those who broke U.S. immigration laws; it rewards them with access to government benefits and citizenship.
Consider a criminal who has stolen a car. Under a simple amnesty, the crime would be forgotten and criminal penalties waived. By analogy, S. 1348 not only waives those penalties, it allows the thief to keep the car, and gives him $300,000 in benefits as well. This is not merely amnesty, but amnesty with a cash bonus funded by the taxpayer. America deserves better.
— Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.