Politics & Policy

Hope Over Experience

A major effort was launched in Congress last week to pass an amnesty for the ten-million-plus illegal aliens and a guestworker program to admit thousands more “temporary” workers.

The bipartisan nature of the bill–its lead sponsors are senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, and it is backed by labor and business lobbyists–is offered as proof of its reasonableness and political potency. But the immigration issue is such that having Kennedy and McCain on the same side is not at all unexpected, and is certainly no argument in favor of this misguided piece of legislation.

The McCain/Kennedy amnesty bill (named, in all seriousness, the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005″) is in large part a replay of the 1986 immigration bargain reluctantly endorsed by President Reagan. That measure promised forgiveness for past illegal immigration in exchange for genuine controls against future law breaking.

Some bargain. Over a period of several years, nearly three million illegal aliens (of the then-total of five million) received amnesty, but the enforcement side of the deal–a prohibition on employing illegal aliens–was designed to fail, since legitimate businesses had no viable way of determining who was legal. And after a few years of desultory efforts, even enforcement under this inadequate system was discontinued.

The result was completely predictable: a profusion of fraudulent documentation, a doubling of the illegal population (to more than ten million), and the increasing normalization of something that was widely considered unacceptable only a few years ago.

“Supporters of the McCain/Kennedy

proposal deny that it is

an amnesty”

In a triumph of hope over experience, McCain and Kennedy contend that under their bill, things would work out differently. Illegal aliens already here would be able to sign up as “temporary” workers and after six years would receive permanent residency and eventually citizenship. In addition, at least 400,000 new foreign workers would be admitted each year, every one of whom would also be on track to citizenship. The enforcement measures included in the bill are risibly inadequate.

Supporters of the McCain/Kennedy proposal deny that it is an amnesty, pointing to the fact that payment of a (modest) fine is one of the prerequisites of legalization. But since the goal of an illegal immigrant is to work in the United States, anything that legalizes his presence is a reward; the putative fine is little more than a retroactive smuggling fee paid to the U.S. government.

Even the French have figured this out. Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister who was such a thorn in our side over Iraq, said last week that amnesty is always a failure: “It’s out of the question,” Villepin said, when asked about revisiting France’s last two amnesties, in 1981 and 1997. “Each time, it creates a chain reaction and a wave of new arrivals.”

The McCain/Kennedy proposal’s two elements are each based a false premise. The amnesty portion assumes that the only choices before us are mass roundups or legalization. And the guestworker section assumes that our vast, 21st-century economy can’t function without a constant flow of high-school dropouts from overseas. Neither of these assumptions is true. Only a policy of attrition of the illegal population through consistent, comprehensive enforcement will enable us to successfully manage immigration in the long run. And markets will clear any labor shortages by raising wages and spurring technological innovation.

McCain/Kennedy would be as inadvisable as McCain/Feingold, but with consequences that would be even more fundamental and undesirable. The sooner this measure is consigned to oblivion the better.


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