Amnesties Beget More Illegal Immigration: Will somebody tell Congress?

By Mark Krikorian on October 16, 2000

National Review

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and several other Republican congressmen released an INS draft report Thursday on the illegal-alien population, which shows that the 1986 amnesty of 2.7 million illegal aliens led to a surge in new illegal immigration.

They are using it to counter a proposed new amnesty for more than 1 million illegal aliens, part of the "Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act" now being pushed by Vice President Gore and congressional Democrats (along with their high-immigration Republican allies). In fact, President Clinton has threatened to veto the Commerce, State, Justice appropriations bill if the amnesty is not part of it--meaning he would shut down the FBI unless Congress amnesties these illegals.

Smith had to subpoena the INS to get a copy of the report, which the INS insisted was still a work in progress. Coincidentally, the final estimates won't be released until after Election Day. But estimates of illegal immigration are by their very nature tentative, and these estimates represent the best attempt yet to understand the scope of illegal immigration.

The first lesson to be learned from these new estimates is that amnesties do not solve the problem of illegal immigration. About 2.7 million people received lawful permanent residence ("green cards") in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of the amnesties contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. But these new INS figures show that by the beginning of 1997 those former illegal aliens had been entirely replaced by new illegal aliens, and that the unauthorized population again stood at more than 5 million, just as before the amnesty.

In fact, the new INS estimates show that the 1986 amnesty almost certainly increased illegal immigration, as the relatives of newly legalized illegals came to the United States to join their family members. The flow of illegals grew dramatically during the years of the amnesty to more than 800,000 a year, before dropping back down to around 500,000 a year.

Some of the usual suspects on the high-immigration side of the debate have claimed that this increase in illegal immigration was caused only by the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) provisions of the 1986 amnesty. In other words, short-term farm workers who didn't already live here brought their wives and children upon getting legalized; since the amnesty now being considered applies to longer-term residents, these advocates argue that this new amnesty wouldn't result in the same kind of surge in illegal immigration. Inconveniently for this line of argument, figures in the INS report itself show that illegal immigration surged more dramatically from countries other than Mexico. Since the vast majority of those amnestied under SAW were from Mexico, the increase should have been mostly Mexican if the SAW provision had been responsible for the surge.

Overall, the estimates show that nearly 500,000 illegal aliens settled here each year in the mid-1990s. In order to calculate the net increase in the total number of settled illegals, the INS report offsets the annual flow by about 145,000 illegals who returned home on their own each year, 40,000 deportations, 20,000 deaths — and around 150,000 illegals receiving green cards as part of the normal "legal" immigration process.

This last number suggests the intimate link between legal and illegal immigration, contrary to common perceptions. Between 1987 and 1996, the INS report states that 1.3 million green cards were given out to illegal aliens as part of the normal "legal" immigration process (189,000 in 1996 alone) — separate from the 2.7 million illegals who received legal status under the 1986 IRCA amnesty. What's more, the 1.3 million green cards given out to illegals between 1987 and 1996 dwarf immigration enforcement efforts.

According to the new estimates, only 335,000 illegals were deported or required to leave the country by the INS during the same period. One would hope that these numbers would give pause to Democrats urging a new amnesty. But perhaps more important, Republicans need to understand the long-term consequences of such a policy. Now, you would expect Republicans to be reflexively opposed to illegal-alien amnesties, and Sen. Phil Gramm, to his credit, has spoken out forcefully against the amnesty plan. But there are indications that the Republican leadership is offering to support the amnesty in exchange for Democratic acquiescence to a massive new farmworker program being considered by the House. The new INS report suggests that such an ill-begotten deal would exact a high price in supercharged illegal immigration.