How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (9): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Amnesty Trap

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on July 18, 2012

The necessity to legalize illegal aliens is one basic, irreducible premise of immigration "grand bargains". This is, when you think of it, a rather odd asymmetric policy and ethical stance. The political, policy, and moral elements of enforcing American immigration laws stand on much firmer ground than efforts to legalize illegal aliens.

Almost no one disputes the right of legitimate sovereign governments to regulate their borders, democratically pass reasonable laws and policies regarding who may legally live and work in their countries, and then take prudent steps to ensure that those laws are enforced.

Nor can there be much effective argument that American immigration laws, as they now stand, are in any fundamental way immoral or unjust. A nation's laws and policies, especially if they are the product of a democratic process that is in compliance with the laws of the land, have legitimacy and thus a moral standing that comes from that fact. That legitimacy and moral standing is increased if the laws and policies enacted are themselves reasonable and fair and pass an independent test of moral standing.

That independent test of moral standing is important. Racial segregation laws may well be passed by democratic process as they were in the United States early in its history, but they could never withstand any independent moral assessment, and they didn't. That is why adherence to democratic process alone cannot be the only or final test of a policy's legitimacy.

Yet surely America's immigration laws pass both the democracy and the independent moral test. They are the results of democratic process and are fair and legitimate both in their own right and in comparison to other countries' laws.

The United States' immigration policies allow approximately a million or more new legal immigrants to come to this country every year. American immigration policy does not discriminate against any group or country on the basis of nationality, culture, race, or gender. And it makes it relatively easy for new legal immigrants to become citizens.

Yet, even these very liberal immigration policies don't satisfy some. One recent morally based accusation against the American immigration system, in a CNN blog no less, made the following baseless accusation:

A hard-working entrepreneur born in a remote African village has far fewer opportunities to achieve his dreams than a lazy dimwit born in America. Even if the African seizes all her chances and the American none, the American is still likely to enjoy a more comfortable life. And the surest thing that African could do to transform her (and her family's) life chances is to go and work in the U.S.

But only if governments allow her to. Unfortunately, we live in a system of apartheid, where the rich and the educated can move about increasingly freely, while the poor are expected to stay put, like serfs tied to the land where they were born.

The author of this tendentious accusation is woefully ignorant of actual American immigration policy. American immigrants are mostly not rich and educated. Moreover, this author provides no remedies beyond his accusation, and how could he? Open-border advocates never seriously grapple with the catastrophic consequences of allowing anyone who wants to emigrate to the United States (or Western Europe, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand for that matter) to do so.

Legalization advocates are not all open-border advocates, although the reverse is certainly true. However, they do seem to share a premise that having "good reasons" for coming to live and work in a country, even if illegally, trumps any national community's reasonable and democratically passed efforts to regulate immigration.

That is the philosophical basis of the amnesty trap, and it doesn't bear close inspection. Yet, there is a much more practical reason that legalization's amnesty trap should be avoided. It actually leads to more illegal aliens factoring in the possibility of future legalizations in their travel plans.

Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (10): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Fairness Dimension of Amnesties or view a list of the entire series.