What Happens When an Amnesty Rollout Fails?

By Mark Krikorian on November 19, 2013

The AP writes:

The first year of the Obama administration's temporary reprieve for youth living in the country illegally has shown that any broader immigration reform effort would require the government to better prepare by streamlining application procedures and by providing more information about what documents are needed to apply to stay in America, experts say.

Though there apparently haven't been Obamacare-level meltdowns in the administration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) amnesty, for illegal aliens who claim to have come before their 16th birthday, a professor who's studying it notes that "DACA represents an important trial run for a larger legalization process, should one result from comprehensive immigration reform." If such a program were expanded to cover millions of people, this White House's combination of hubris and incompetence (not to mention the simple lack of bureaucratic capacity) could well lead to serious administrative problems.

And that highlights the very different consequences of administrative failure in health care vs. immigration. When the Obamacare's infrastructure fails, millions are unable to sign up for health insurance and face the individual-mandate penalty. This creates a large group of really angry people. But when an amnesty program's infrastructure fails, the result is simply that applications are rubber-stamped and many more fraudulent applicants get through. This is what happened in 1986, when the crush of applications, combined with lax standards and intense political pressure, resulted in massive fraud, with perhaps one-third of all beneficiaries having committed fraud. Even New York Times reporter Roberto Suro characterized it as "one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated against the United States government."

In other words, Obamacare's failure created specific losers; an amnesty's failure would harm Americans in the generality but deliver concrete benefits to millions who successfully lied their way to legal status. The consequences, therefore, would be very different, with the former lighting a fire under even Democratic politicians to do something, while the latter would not create the same political incentive to act.

Having said all that, I'm not sure how the approval rate of a general amnesty could get any higher than the one for the relatively narrow DACA amnesty. Of the 437,686 applications resolved through the end of July, 430,236 were granted amnesty, an approval rate of 98.3 percent. And even this small share of the illegal population caused DHS to cut corners; documents FOIAed by Judicial Watch show that the agency switched to "lean and lite" background checks "in effort to keep up with the flood of amnesty applications." Imagine what would happen when millions apply.