Amnesty Advocates Trumpet Distinction Without a Difference

By David North on December 3, 2010

The ever-creative advocates of amnesty for illegal aliens are pressing what they regard as a historical argument for the proposed DREAM and AgJobs Acts – that those kinds of specialized programs, not general amnesties, are, in effect, the American Way. That's their position.

As Gertrude Stein would have said, an illegal alien is an illegal alien is an illegal alien. There may be a fine distinction between boutique amnesties and general ones, but there are no differences in their impacts on the broader society, on taxpayers, nor, for that matter, on the aliens themselves.

The latest wrinkle in the advocates' argument is a report entitled "More Than IRCA: US Legalization Programs and the Current Policy Debate." It was written by Donald M. Kerwin, and published yesterday by the well-funded, migration-friendly Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The report makes a distinction between "population-specific and registry" legalization programs, and the main, general legalization program established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. In order to make its point, that more aliens were legalized under the population-specific and registry programs than under the general IRCA program, it defines out three of the four amnesty elements of the IRCA program as population-specific. The three non-general IRCA programs defined out are the SAW and registry programs, described below, and a program to legalize some Cuban and Haitian entrants known to INS at the time.

It's an interesting point for specialists, if a bit strained, but it is meaningless in terms of public policy.

As an old hand in the legalization research business – I was selected by the Ford Foundation and a small, now-extinct federal agency to review the operations of the IRCA legalization programs at the time – I was quite aware that there were different programs, and that some of them were much more vulnerable to fraud than others, a point that Kerwin does not make.

The big population-specific program within the IRCA framework, the one that legalized 1.1 million people claiming to be farmworkers, was totally fraud-ridden, as the requirements were easy to meet or claim to meet, and INS simply gave up sorting out bad applications from good ones. This was the Special Agricultural Workers (SAWs) program.

On the other hand, IRCA's general legalization program had much tougher requirements, and had, as a result, much less fraud. It drew 1.6 million successful applicants. (For more on the operations of these programs, see my Backgrounder on the subject.)

Using his own definitions, Kerwin finds that over the years 2.1 million aliens were legalized through population-specific programs, as opposed to the 1.6 million in the general program. Many of the non-SAWs so legalized were in registry programs. These, which still are in operation, give legal status to illegal aliens who have been in the U. S. for a long time; the date now in the law is January 1, 1972, so it has not been much used in recent years, but was popular in earlier decades.

A far busier program, currently, is cancellation of removal (formerly called "suspension of deportation"); if an immigration judge agrees, an illegal alien in the U.S. for ten or more years, without a serious criminal record, can get a green card through this route. The report indicates that 247,079 people have become legal aliens through this program over the years; I, for one, had no idea it had been used that often.

The report brings together some interesting data on all the mini-amnesties that the government has created in recent years, and that is helpful, even if the central thrust of the report – that specific amnesties are more common, and thus more politically palatable, than general ones – is not.