The Latest Amnesty: McCain and Kennedy Make a Bad Pair on Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on June 6, 2005

National Review, June 6, 2005

Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy recently unveiled legislation that would give legal status -- amnesty -- to 10 million illegal aliens, and create a guest-worker program to admit even more foreign workers. They have an impressive collection of congressional supporters and interest groups behind them. But a bipartisan endorsement list can't hide the fact that this bill is a hoax we've seen before.

In essence it is the same as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act: amnesty up front for millions of illegal aliens, and promises to enforce immigration law. Such promises are quickly abandoned -- but in 1986, people didn't know that yet.

There was a sense then that the reform was a grand bargain -- closing the back door by prohibiting the employment of illegal immigrants for the first time ever, but tying up the loose ends of prior policy missteps with an amnesty. But that bargain was never consummated. Over a period of several years, nearly 3 million illegal aliens (from a total of 5 million at the time) received amnesty, but the centerpiece of the enforcement side of the deal -- the prohibition on employing illegals -- could not possibly succeed, since the immigration service was not required to develop a system enabling legitimate businesses to determine who was actually authorized to work. Even this deeply flawed system managed to keep some illegals from getting hired, but that outcome only incensed the anti-borders crowd, which successfully lobbied for the system's abandonment a few years later.

The result of the amnesty was completely predictable: a profusion of fraudulent documentation, a doubling of the illegal population (to more than 10 million), and the normalization of illegal immigration, something that had been widely considered unacceptable only a few years before.

This is what McCain and Kennedy have repackaged and are trying to sell. The amnesty part of their proposal works this way: Illegal aliens are dubbed legal workers, and after a six-year period of indenture -- plus some fines, background checks, and an English and civics test -- they (and their families) get green cards. This is similar to how the last amnesty worked, except for the six-year wait; the 1986 law amnestied those who had already entered the country before a certain date, some four years prior to the law's passage. Thus the McCain-Kennedy proposal is a prospective amnesty, while the 1986 measure was a retrospective amnesty.

The bill's guest-worker provision allows 400,000 new foreign workers a year, with an escalator clause if businesses snap up the cheap, docile workers faster than expected. These "temporary" workers would have to serve only a four-year period of indenture before they, too, could get green cards. To accommodate them, legal-immigration quotas would be increased by that 400,000 per year.

The enforcement sections of the bill are laughably thin. The section on border security is almost a parody of a Washington cop-out: It orders up yet another "National Strategy for Border Security" (rather than picking one of the previous strategies and implementing it), plus an advisory committee, two coordination plans, and various other reports and programs and multilateral partnerships.

Other provisions almost seem intended to hobble enforcement. Though the law provides for a system to verify employment eligibility, it instructs the Social Security Administration to reinvent the wheel rather than simply expand on the successful pilot system that the immigration service has been developing for over a decade. The job of auditing firms for compliance with the immigration law would be taken away from immigration agents and given to the Labor Department, perhaps the only agency even less capable of doing it. And the bill specifically says that it does not give state and local cops any new authority to enforce immigration law.

Supporters of the McCain-Kennedy proposal deny that it's an amnesty, pointing to the fact that illegals must pay a modest fine before they are legalized. But since the goal of an illegal immigrant is to enter and stay in the United States, anything that legalizes his presence is a reward; the fine is just a retroactive smuggling fee paid to the U.S. government.

Even the French have figured all this out. Dominique de Villepin, France's interior minister, was asked recently whether his country would stage another amnesty, as it did in 1981 and 1997. "It's out of the question," he said. "Each time, it creates a chain reaction and a wave of new arrivals."

Each of the McCain-Kennedy proposal's two elements is based on a false premise: The amnesty portion assumes that the only choices before us are mass roundups or legalization, and the guest-worker section assumes that our vast, 21st-century economy can't function without a constant flow of high-school dropouts from overseas. Neither of these assumptions is true. Only a policy of attriting the illegal population through consistent, comprehensive enforcement will enable us to manage immigration successfully in the long run, as the free market replaces illegal workers with a mix of higher wages and mechanization.

Despite the long list of interest groups behind the McCain-Kennedy amnesty, its odds aren't good. John Cornyn, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, doesn't like it; he contrasted the bill's "work and stay" approach to his preferred model of "work and return," which would import millions of foreign workers in the (mistaken) belief that they would go home when their contracts expired.

What's more, the Senate recently defeated a more narrow amnesty proposal from Senators Kennedy and Larry Craig that would have given legal status to illegal-alien farm workers and their families. That smaller plan was backed by the industry groups most passionately seeking amnesty. But if there weren't enough votes to pass it in the Senate that time, the much broader McCain-Kennedy amnesty is an even longer shot.

On the House side, a new pro-borders majority among Republicans, energized by its victory on the Real ID Act, will fight the amnesty tooth and nail. The White House, meanwhile, is concerned that supporting this bill -- which is an amnesty even by the president's narrow definition -- could cause a "read my lips"-style blowup among conservatives.

Perhaps most important, the public is increasingly concerned about immigration. Although immigration has rarely been among the top two or three issues for voters, that seems to be changing. Recurrent reports of terrorists and super-violent gang members exploiting our broken immigration system are finally getting people's attention. The Arizona-based Minuteman border-watch program's resonance on talk radio, its spread to other states, and its embrace by prominent politicians like California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are all signs that the McCain-Kennedy amnesty may well be the last gasp of the anti-borders crowd.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.