How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (10): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Fairness Dimension of Amnesties

At its most sympathetic, the amnesty trap is predicated on the assumption that it is understandable that those choosing to live and work in the United States in violation of our immigration laws do so because illegal aliens only want a better life for themselves and their families. This resonates with most Americans because as a country and culture we are sympathetic to the plight of those who are struggling.

It's to our national credit that sympathy and understanding are among our primary impulses, even though in some important ways they make developing a fair and equitable immigration system harder to achieve. Yes, the plight of illegal aliens tugs at our heartstrings and sense of generosity, but other facts and the legitimate feelings they generate also merit space to be considered in our hearts and minds.

The failure of our national government to effectively enforce our immigrations laws is damaging to our civic and national culture and puts many parts of the community in an unnecessary and difficult position of having to lend their support to the proposition that it's OK for illegal aliens to jump to the front of the immigration line and reap the advantages of doing so while others wait patiently for their family members to advance in the legal queue. And it isn't clear to the American national community why those who are able to make use of their geographical proximity to the United States or their relative wealth and education to gain and then overstay their visas, as almost half of all illegal aliens now do, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, should be privileged in any way.

If Americans were more familiar with the details of ongoing congressional debates they might wonder why illegal aliens who want to adjust their status, as they may petition to do on a number of grounds, may now be given special permission to do so without leaving the country, thus avoiding the consequences laid out in Public Law 104-208, The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That law, duly passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, imposed a waiting period before applying for legal re-entry as a penalty for having entered the country in violation of our laws. So an illegal alien who wanted to adjust his status would ordinarily have to leave the country to do so and thus trigger the penalty. Yes, it could be "disruptive" to the lives that illegal aliens have established here to have to return to their own countries. Yet if they were required to do that they would be acknowledging that they did in fact jump the line and show a willingness to make restitution by bearing the penalty for their acts.

Allowing illegal aliens to continue to reap the benefits of their violation of American immigration laws while tainting the reservoir of fairness to other legal immigrant families would act as an incentive.

And it is the incentive dilemma that must be balanced with the fairness and public interest aspects of American immigration policy that represents the test not only of our empathy, but also of our characters.

NEXT: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (11): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Incentive Dimension of Amnesties or view a list of the entire series.