Amnesty, Again: This Country Should Have Learned -- Apparently, It Has Not

By Mark Krikorian on January 26, 2004

National Review, January 26, 2004

President Bush has kicked off his reelection year by proposing an amnesty for illegal aliens dressed up as a guestworker program, plus the importation of millions of new guestworkers and a significant increase in immigration. What is the White House thinking?

The administration first floated the idea of a guest-worker amnesty in 2001, during President Bush's honeymoon meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, but discussions came to a halt because of 9/11 (as well as ferocious opposition from House Republicans). Over the subsequent two years, the administration issued occasional statements expressing the continued desire to reach an immigration deal with Mexico - but the complete lack of substance in these pronouncements, combined with Secretary of State Colin Powell's careful efforts to keep expectations low, suggested it was little more than talk, intended to appease the beleaguered Fox administration and curry favor with hostile Hispanic racial-identity groups in this country.

But there is more to the current amnesty talk than the sweet nothings of diplomacy. The president has unveiled the outlines of his proposal in anticipation of his planned meeting with Fox during the January 12-13 'Summit of the Americas' in Monterrey, Mexico. It is described as a guest-worker program, but the 'guest' concept is deceptive; in fact, the program would provide for the permanent importation of thousands new workers from overseas and amnesty for illegal aliens already here.

As to the first of these goals, the president has frequently said he wants an "immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee." Taking him at his word would suggest a return to 19th-century unlimited immigration, with the American labor market open to the world's other 6 billion people. And, in fact, this seems to be the objective, because under the proposal, employers would decide which workers come into the United States, though it would maintain the fiction that Americans would have to be offered the jobs first.

Providing U.S. employers of low-skilled labor access to the entire workforce of the Third World would inevitably drive down wages and benefits for Americans, creating ever more "jobs Americans won't do." The White House seems to view immigration as similar to trade, seeking a market-driven system that allows free movement of people. But immigration and trade are fundamentally different issues. As Henry Simons, a pioneering University of Chicago free market advocate wrote in 1948: "To insist that a free-trade program is logically or practically incomplete without free migration is either disingenuous or stupid. Free trade may and should raise living standards everywhere . . . Free immigration would level standards, perhaps without raising them anywhere."

Although this importation of new foreign workers would be the more far-reaching component of the White House plan in the long run, the amnesty portion is the more controversial and relevant politically.


Not that amnesty supporters ever use the 'A' word. A couple of years ago, the National Council of La Raza commissioned focus groups to preparh2e for the fight over amnesty and concluded that they should never utter the word. As a result, amnesty proponents have concocted a series of ridiculous euphemisms, which have been embraced by the White House and others: 'normalization,' 'legalization,' 'registration,' 'permanence,' 'earned adjustment, 'adjusted work status,' and - my favorite - "phased-in access to earned regularization."

The only time supporters use the word 'amnesty' is when denying that their proposals constitute an amnesty at all, as in the president's repeated statements that he opposes a 'blanket amnesty.' Unfortunately, coming out against a 'blanket amnesty' is meaningless. What country would grant legal status to every illegal alien, without so much as a cursory background check? The huge amnesty passed by Congress in 1986 (billed as the first and last in American history) was clearly not a 'blanket' amnesty, since there were residency and other requirements applicants had to meet, and 10 percent of the 3 million applicants were rejected.

It is true that the Bush Amnesty would work differently from the 1986 version. First, illegal aliens would be relabeled 'guestworkers' under a renewable three-year status, thus allowing them to remain here legally, get driver's licenses, travel freely, etc. Then, they could apply for green cards under the normal legal-immigration system, free from the fear of deportation. However, rather than allow the backlogs to grow astronomically, as would happen otherwise, the president's plan would significantly increase legal immigration quotas so as to accommodate the new applicants. In other words, this is a kind of two-step amnesty, where the former illegal aliens can remain indefinitely in a contingent status, awaiting the day that their number comes up for a green card. But the mechanics are irrelevant to the central fact: Illegal aliens would be rewarded with legal status, and that's amnesty. To suggest otherwise is an insult to our intelligence.

So what? What's wrong with legalizing millions of hardworking illegal aliens? Let me count the ways.

What part of 'illegal' don't you understand? Amnesty undermines the rule of law. In the first encounter these people had with our country, they broke our law. It would be one thing to use the model of a tax amnesty and give illegals 60 days to leave the country, no questions asked, after which the hammer of enforcement would come down. But the Bush Amnesty would instead reward illegals with the most coveted asset on the planet - permanent residence in the United States.

'Sucker!' The most immediate victims of amnesty are the millions of people overseas on waiting lists seeking to immigrate legally. Even if the illegals have to go to the back of the line, the fact remains that we have rewarded their lawbreaking, and we thus mock those who did not sneak into our country and sought to obey our law.

Overload. Immigration authorities simply do not have the administrative capacity to manage an amnesty - however it is organized - properly. There is now a backlog of more than 5.5 million applications for immigration benefits, up 26 percent from the year before, and the Department of Homeland Security is developing and implementing huge new systems to track foreign students and visitors. Do immigration workers in the midst of all this have so much time on their hands that they can take on the additional task of ensuring that millions of illegal aliens comply with the terms of their "phased-in access to earned regularization" - not to mention doing their background checks?

Enemies, foreign and domestic. Of course, the corollary of administrative overload is massive fraud, as overworked bureaucrats start hurrying people through the system, usually with political encouragement. We saw this in the 1986 amnesty, when applicants who claimed to have picked watermelons from trees were legalized as farm workers, because the INS was prohibited from devoting too much attention to suspicious applications, lest the process bog down. This can become a national-security problem, when ineligible people get legal status - people like, say, Mahmud Abouhalima, a cabbie in New York, who got amnesty as a farm worker under the 1986 law and went on to help lead the first World Trade Center attack. Having an illegal-alien terrorist in your country is bad; having one with legal status is worse, since he can work and travel freely, as Abouhalima did, going to Afghanistan to receive terrorist training only after he got amnesty. And don't fall for the claim that illegal aliens who have sneaked across the Mexican border yearn only to wash our dishes; an Iraqi-born smuggler pled guilty in 2001 to sneaking 1,000 Middle Easterners through Mexico into the U.S., and the former Mexican consul in Beirut was recently arrested for her involvement in a similar enterprise. Another amnesty is guaranteed - guaranteed - to give legal residence to a future terrorist.

"It's a paycheck!" The morale of government workers responsible for enforcing the immigration law is grievously undermined when their political superiors continually talk about amnesty for the very people who lied, cheated, and generally flouted the law. In this environment, it's easy to understand how, for instance, an airport immigration inspector in Miami could have allowed Mohamed Atta to re-enter the country in January 2001 even though he had overstayed his visa the last time; after all, why bother focusing on him when millions like him go unpenalized and when political leaders make crystal clear that they don't take our immigration laws seriously? Immigration workers approach me all the time with their frustration at not being allowed to do their jobs, and amnesty would ensure that they remain trapped in this Dilbert universe, with Congress and the president filling in for the pointy-haired boss.

Priming the pump. Amnesties don't solve the problem of illegal immigration - they exacerbate it. An INS report released about three years ago showed that after the 1986 amnesty, illegal immigration increased markedly as family and friends of the newly legalized aliens sneaked into the country. And the new illegals weren-t just Mexicans, emboldened to hop across the border; illegal immigration from other countries surged even more dramatically, suggesting that amnesty's role in encouraging further illegal immigration is a general phenomenon.

We the People? Amnesty will create millions of new U.S.-Mexican dual citizens, who, as early as 2006, may be able to vote in both countries - elections. This would represent the fulfillment of Mexico's efforts to extend its authority over a large part of the American population - the most serious threat to our sovereignty since the Civil War. The Mexican consulates in the U.S. already represent the largest such network in any country, and the consuls are increasingly taking part in domestic politics and governance. Amnesty would hugely accelerate this trend.

Sticker shock. Illegal aliens can't receive welfare; legal immigrants can. The fear of a fiscal earthquake is why Congress in 1986 barred amnesty recipients from some welfare programs for five years and reimbursed states a small portion of their aid costs for the former illegals. But no amount of fancy footwork could avoid the fact that permanently settling millions of unskilled laborers into a modern economy costs the public treasury billions. A study ten years after the last amnesty estimated that the newly legalized aliens had already generated a net fiscal deficit of $24 billion. Is this really the time to saddle states and localities - which would bear most of the costs - with an additional unfunded mandate?


Okay, but even if you stipulate to all these problems, there's nothing else we can do, right? We can't round up 9 to 10 million illegals, so why not suck it up and weather the fallout of amnesty, but resolve to mend our ways and put in place measures to ensure we don't get more illegals in the future? This appears to be the marketing strategy the White House has in mind, with talk of increased use of technology at the border and tougher enforcement against employers who abuse the system.

It would be impolite to ask why these measures aren't being taken already, given that the enemy is even now plotting to penetrate our defenses and kill us. Let me point out only that this bargain - amnesty in exchange for stricter future control - was the basis of the 1986 law. And as anyone with a modicum of common sense could have predicted at the time, the deal was a trick. The law was indeed tightened, prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens on the valid assumption that removing the magnet of jobs is necessary to stem illegal immigration. But enforcement was sporadic at best, and has now virtually ceased. The consequences were hard to miss: 2.7 million illegal aliens were legalized, but because there was little commitment to law enforcement, every one of them was replaced by a new illegal alien within ten years of the law's implementation.

To go back to the original question: What are they thinking? The administration is populated by smart, public-spirited men and women; how have they come to support such nonsense? The proximate reason is politics, with the quest for a larger share of the Hispanic vote clouding the judgment of otherwise sensible people. Though its importance is wildly exaggerated, the effort to win more Hispanic votes isn't a bad idea; it's just that this isn't the way to do it. The Hispanic voters most likely to back Republicans are the very law-and-order, God-and-country traditionalists who are left cold by talk of amnesty. A Zogby poll conducted shortly before 9/11 found Hispanics evenly split on amnesty. In fact, twice as many Hispanics in the survey said support for amnesty would make them less likely to vote for the president as said it would make them more likely to support him. And when it came to congressional elections, support for amnesty would lose four Hispanic votes for each one gained. Even more important politically, of course, is the fact that amnesty is poison to the president's conservative base. In fact, there are few policies more likely to hurt Republican prospects. The same Zogby poll found conservatives opposing amnesty 2-to-1, with about one-third of the total saying they would actually be less likely to vote for the president if he supported an amnesty.

But you don't need a pollster to tell you that. After Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in December called for giving illegals "some kind of legal status," Rush Limbaugh, who has customarily remained aloof from the immigration issue, spent 20 minutes of air time lambasting him. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican and outspoken head of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, called for Ridge to start enforcing the law or resign. Earlier in the fall, Rep. J. D. Hayworth, an Arizona Republican, got 63 colleagues to sign a letter to President Bush urging him to reject "any and all forms of amnesty." And columnists from Michelle Malkin to Phyllis Schlafly to Paul Weyrich have repeatedly weighed in to blast amnesty.

So, again, how can smart people think there's something to be gained from amnesty? The answer is that Beltway and Wall Street Republicans live in an elite echo chamber, where the received wisdom about immigration goes unchallenged by respectable people. We conservatives assume this kind of groupthink is just a liberal malady. After all, which of us hasn't laughed at the comment by the New Yorker writer who remarked after Nixon's 1972 landslide, "I can't believe it! I don't know a single person who voted for him!"? But on immigration, the disconnect between elite and public opinion crosses party lines. The Chicago Council of Foreign Relations in 2002 polled the public and opinion leaders on a variety of foreign-policy-related issues, and found the gap to be greatest on immigration. The poll found that 70 percent of the public said that reducing illegal immigration should be a 'very important' foreign-policy goal, compared with only 22 percent of elites. The elite/public disconnect was even greater than on issues where you would expect a wide gap, like support for foreign aid or globalization or even the U.N.

The Wall Street Journal's editorial page exemplifies this disconnect. So constructive on other issues, the paper is wholly out of touch with America on immigration. Building on its prior record (it has repeatedly called for a constitutional amendment that says, "There shall be open borders"), the Journal responded to Secretary Ridge's call for amnesty by saying that he deserves a raise.

Republicans need to save the president from his advisers, lest amnesty become for him what illegal-alien driver's licenses were for Gray Davis: the disaster he embraced because everyone he knew thought it was a good idea. Amnesty shouldn't even be discussed until our immigration system has been fixed. When it comes to considering tax increases, the rallying cry of Republicans has always been "cut spending first." In the context of an illegal-alien amnesty, their cry must be "control immigration first." The White House seems to think that they have put in place the needed immigration-control tools and that they can now move to the next step. In fact, though, we are years away from the infrastructure that we need to protect our borders. And even then, we need to see eight or ten years of proven, ongoing, border control and interior enforcement, with a properly functioning and motivated immigration bureaucracy and a steadily declining illegal-alien population. Only then is it appropriate even to raise the issue of amnesty for the remaining long-term illegals whom we didn't manage to deport or who didn't leave on their own. Nor is immigration control a pipe dream, or achievable only with machine guns and land mines on the border. We need only the political will to uphold the law using ordinary law-enforcement tools, and to resist measures that make things worse, such as new guest-worker programs. Once the message gets out that it's not business as usual any longer, the illegal population will shrink through attrition, and we will wonder why we were paralyzed for so long by this problem.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.