At Issue: Should Amnesty Be Granted to Latinos Living Illegally in the U.S.?

By Mark Krikorian on October 17, 2003

Congresstional Quarterly Researcher, October 17, 2003

As the number of illegal aliens increases, so do proposals to "solve" the problem through an amnesty. The Bush administration, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have floated various proposals, most using a temporary worker program as a fig leaf to cover the reality of amnesty.

The problem certainly needs to be addressed. Our country is now home to some 9 million illegal aliens - more than a quarter of the total immigrant population - and at least 700,000 new illegals settle here each year.

But is legalization likely to solve the problem? Our experience with amnesties leaves little doubt that the answer is "No." In 1986, Congress granted green cards to 2.7 million illegal aliens out of a total of 5 million. But the enforcement measures that were coupled with the amnesty were not implemented in a meaningful way; as a result, by 1994 every amnesty recipient had been replaced by a new illegal.

Amnesty supporters counter that we have to find a way to accommodate this flow of labor from abroad because it is both inevitable and essential to our economy. Neither is true.

Illegal immigration is an artifact of misguided government policies - both sins of commission (like guest-worker programs, amnesties and mass legal immigration) and sins of omission (unwillingness to enforce the law). Though illegal immigration can never be eliminated altogether, it can be radically curtailed, if only we choose to do so.

Nor do we need the labor. In fact, mass, unskilled immigration is actually harming the industries where it is concentrated - by slowing the increase in productivity, which is the heart of economic progress. There are enormous labor-saving opportunities - in agriculture, light manufacturing, construction and even services - that remain unrealized because of the continuing flow of low-wage immigrant workers.

The alternative to amnesty is not roundups and mass expulsion. Instead, the solution is the "broken-windows" policing approach pursued by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s. A new commitment to enforce order in our lawless immigration system will send the message that the immigration law is back in business and lead many illegals to leave voluntarily; prospective illegals abroad will decide to stay put.

Amnesty is not even an appropriate topic for discussion until after we reassert control over immigration. Only then might it be plausible - as the closing act, tying up the loose ends left over from the irresponsible immigration policies of the past.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.