National Review, January 25, 2021
Polling shows broad public support for giving amnesty to long-established illegal aliens. President Biden and I agree on that.
But any immigration poll where Joe Biden and I provide the same answer is asking the wrong question.
Rewarding immigration lawbreakers by letting them keep what they stole (residence in the United States) is always distasteful. But it can be part of a pragmatic approach to cleaning up the mess created by past flawed policies.
But the only way such an amnesty can work as policy — and be accepted as legitimate by the public — is if it addresses the reasons that such a large illegal population developed in the first place. Otherwise, today's amnesty simply tees up tomorrow's even bigger amnesty.
Past amnesty proposals have acknowledged this imperative, in words if not in deeds. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized about three million of the five million illegal aliens believed to be here at the time, was a grand bargain of amnesty in exchange for promises of future enforcement, specifically of the new ban on the hiring of illegal aliens. Those promises were not kept, and within a few years the continued nonenforcement of immigration law meant that all the amnestied illegal aliens were replaced by new ones.
The immigration bills pushed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also adopted this grand-bargain approach — amnesty for those already here in exchange for promises to enforce the law in the future. The bills failed because the 1986 promises had been betrayed, meaning no one believed the new promises (with good reason).
This is why opposition to amnesty bills in Congress has centered on the demand for "enforcement first" instead of amnesty first. Amnesty critics have demanded that the mechanisms needed to ensure compliance with immigration rules in the future be up and running before any amnesty would begin — otherwise they never would be.
Such prerequisites would include mandatory use of the online E-Verify system to check the legal status of all new hires; a functioning entry-exit tracking system for foreign visitors, to ensure that they leave when they're supposed to (most new illegal immigrants enter legally as visitors and then don't leave); and full cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement — i.e., an end to sanctuary cities.
The radicalism of Biden's approach is that it rejects both enforcement first and enforcement second in favor of enforcement never. To those who want assurances that the president will at least enforce immigration laws after an amnesty, the new administration's answer is that of Judge Smails in Caddyshack: "You'll get nothing, and like it."
President Biden has pledged to allow all current and future illegal aliens to remain here forever, so long as they avoid a felony conviction (except one related to drunk driving, which he would ignore). The massive bill he proposes would actually repeal many long-standing measures to ensure compliance with immigration rules, such as the three- and 10-year bars (which prevent those who've been in the U.S. illegally for six months to a year or more than a year, respectively, from reentering once they leave) and the one-year deadline to apply for asylum.
What's more, the legislation sets in motion a push to renege on the original grand bargain of 1986 and make it legal again to hire illegal aliens. Biden's bill would not do that immediately but rather would, in the words of the summary, "establish a commission involving labor, employer, and civil rights organizations to make recommendations for improving the employment verification process." Since all labor, employer, and civil-rights organizations likely to be considered for such a commission oppose even the idea of requiring legal status for employment, it's obvious what the conclusion of the commission would be, paving the way for repealing the ban on hiring illegal aliens.
Some will no doubt make the argument that the needed enforcement has already happened, during the Trump administration. And it's true that there were many improvements to immigration enforcement over the past four years. But they don't even come close to the prerequisites for considering amnesty, for two reasons.
First, Trump's reforms were ephemeral. Since they were all the result of executive actions, they all can and will be reversed by President Biden (and a compliant judiciary will not interfere to the degree it did in Trump's actions).
Second, Trump's immigration-control advances were incomplete. The border wall, as important as it is, is simply one tool among many, and not necessarily the most important one. There is still no entry-exit tracking system in place, 25 years after it was mandated by Congress. For all his supposed hawkishness on immigration, Trump was ambivalent about E-Verify and took no steps to expand its use. Deportations did not increase, while sanctuaries multiplied, despite the administration's efforts to combat them.
We're no closer to having in place the enforcement prerequisites for an amnesty than we were under Obama — arguably, we're farther away, given the Left's scorched-earth assault on immigration-law enforcement over the past four years. The passage of the Biden immigration bill — even in a slimmed-down form — would merely guarantee continued illegal immigration in the future.