Politics & Policy

The False Middle Ground on Amnesty

Sen. Rand Paul
Give amnesty to illegal immigrants and then keep them from voting? It’ll never work.

Senator Rand Paul recently suggested the following as part of a possible immigration compromise: giving amnesty to the illegal population but not giving them “immediate voting privileges.”

His phrasing about voting is the result of either hyperbole or ignorance, since there’s never been any proposal that would give illegals the ability to vote immediately. But what he seemed to be suggesting is legalizing illegal aliens with the kind of provisional status provided for in the Schumer–Rubio amnesty, but without offering them a green card and the eventual chance at citizenship that entails. (A green card confers “permanent residency,” and after five years of that status — in most cases — a green-card holder may apply for citizenship.)

#ad#Here’s what Paul said, as reported by the Hill:

“Are you willing to try to bring the 11 million people who are here, bring them out of the shadows, give them an existence, try to be more humane, and try to get a better situation for them? That could happen tomorrow,” Paul said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The problem is, is the sticking point going to be we have to have immediate voting privileges for those who came here illegally,” Paul added. “If the Democrats are willing to come halfway, I think we can pass some meaningful reform.”

Under such an amnesty, the formerly illegal immigrants would receive Employment Authorization Documents (EADs, or work cards), legitimate Social Security accounts, driver’s licenses, expanded (though still limited) access to welfare, travel documents enabling them to leave and freely reenter the country, eligibility for affirmative-action preferences, and much more. The only thing they wouldn’t have is a timetable to apply for citizenship, which means no prospect of eventually being able to vote.

This idea of a work-visa amnesty or non-citizenship amnesty has been around for a while; Senator Rubio’s stillborn alternative to the DREAM Act envisioned just such an arrangement. (President Obama beat Rubio to the punch with his unilateral and illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.) Representative Darrell Issa is preparing legislation to offer this sort of amnesty to illegals generally. The notion even has some intellectual cachet: My friend Peter Skerry, a Boston College political-science professor, made a sober and reasoned case for it in National Affairs.

Unfortunately, it is a mirage. A non-citizenship amnesty would not fix the shortcomings of a regular amnesty and would probably be worse in some ways.

Amnesty before enforcement. Amnesty would be distasteful and expensive, but many Americans are, as a practical matter, resigned to legalizing long-resident, non-violent illegal aliens. But for any kind of amnesty, sans citizenship or not, they’re okay with it only if it’s the last amnesty. Legalizing illegals before we’ve completed our enforcement infrastructure is a recipe for yet more amnesties in the future, which is clearly what the amnesty-pushers have in mind. Any form of legalization that takes place before — at the very least — full implementation of E-Verify and a biometric exit-tracking system for foreign visitors would simply repeat the debacle of 1986, when nearly 3 million illegals got amnesty but the promised enforcement did not materialize. “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for an amnesty today” worked once with a trusting American public; they’re not suckers enough to fall for that trick a second time. If lawmakers wanted to (unwisely, I think) package enforcement and legalization in the same bill, with a trigger for the latter, the trigger should be something like three years of steady decline in the total illegal population as determined by three independent sources — i.e., proof that enforcement is actually happening. Whether or not the illegals got green cards or red or blue or whatever is irrelevant to this point.

The concern that the amnesty-pushers are lying about their commitment to future enforcement is only heightened by the antics of an administration that is revolted by the very idea of enforcing immigration limits. Last year, deportations dropped 10 percent, despite a huge increase in the number of illegals that federal authorities are aware of (via the Secure Communities program that sends arrestees’ fingerprints to DHS as well as to the FBI). The majority of these “deportations” were people caught hours earlier by the Border Patrol; real deportations — i.e., from the interior of the country — dropped more than 25 percent, representing only about 1 percent of the illegal population. (For more on the administration’s deportation chicanery, see this report by my colleague Jessica Vaughan.) Through a series of memos from Obama appointees at DHS, whole classes of illegal aliens, numbering in the millions, have been declared off-limits to enforcement agents. The administration is effectively helping smuggling rings bring people illegally into the country. Worksite arrests have ceased altogether. Anyone who claims this will magically change after an amnesty is a fool or a liar.

Importing a new electorate. Paul’s reference to “immediate voting privileges,” fatuous as it was, does point to Republican fears that the Democrats are using immigration as a voter-recruitment program. Such fears aren’t unfounded; in fact, the Left boasts about it. Amnesty activist Eliseo Medina, former vice president of the SEIU and an honorary chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, has said “[Immigrants] will solidify and expand the progressive coalition for the future. . . . We will create a governing coalition for the long term, not just for an election cycle.”

A non-citizenship amnesty will not, in the final analysis, prevent this. That’s because in the real world the amnesty beneficiaries will eventually get green cards, and every Republican lawmaker pushing the idea knows that. Permanent second-class citizenship is politically unsustainable in the United States, and that’s not a bad thing. If such a measure were to pass, the Democrats would attack the Republicans relentlessly for imposing a Jim Crow immigration regime, and Republicans (led by today’s amnesty-pushers) would quickly fold, possibly delivering green cards to the former illegals even sooner than planned by the Senate bill. Representative Luis Gutierrez has come out and said as much; after signaling that he’d reluctantly accept a non-citizenship amnesty, he continued (emphasis added):

Right now we have to stop the deportations that are breaking up families. And if we do not get citizenship this year, we will be back next year and the year after that.

What’s more, illegal immigration isn’t the main recruitment tool for the Left. Most immigrants are legal immigrants and it’s immigration overall that’s shifting politics to the left. The new immigration system created by the Senate bill would result in more than 32 million potential voters by 2036, lopsidedly Democrats, and overwhelmingly due to legal immigration flows, not the amnesty. (Michael Barone’s claim that “the Hispanic vote is up for grabs” is an uncharacteristic instance of wishful thinking.) Any effort to preserve the viability of traditionalist, small-government conservatism must start with reducing legal immigration, not supercharging it, as Chuck Schumer’s bill would do.

Contrary to Senator Paul’s claim, a non-citizenship amnesty is no “halfway” solution. It’s a gimmick dreamed up by Republican lawmakers who want to join with their Democratic colleagues in delivering the amnesty and immigration increases that corporate donors demand, while at the same time appearing responsive to the concerns of Republican (and independent and Reagan Democrat) voters.

It’s a political expedient than would be abandoned the moment President Obama signed the bill.

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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