Immigration Reform Part 7: To Amnesty or Not Amnesty

The most troublesome issue regarding immigration reform is what to do with the illegals currently here. Inevitably, the dirty word “amnesty” is introduced into the conversation. The most well-known such program enacted was 1986’s IRCA under Ronald Reagan which eventually granted amnesty to some 2.7 million illegal immigrants. Additionally, certain agricultural workers from Mexico were granted amnesty. The main criticism is that once it is done, it encourages further illegal entries. Since the passage of IRCA in 1986, the US has taken in an average of 950,000 immigrants per year with 200,000 illegal immigrants per year. Since IRCA, under the guise of “reform” or “adjustments,” there have been six other major amnesty programs- all under Clinton- which granted amnesty to a greater number than the Reagan reforms (an estimated 3.1 million). They were: 575,000 under a 1994 IRCA adjustment, 100,000 under the 1997 adjustment, 1 million under the Nicaraguan Relief Act in 1997, 125,000 under 1998’s Haiti Relief Act, and another 1.3 million spread over two IRCA adjustments in 2000. In addition to the original amnesty, since 1986 over 5.8 million illegal immigrants have been granted amnesty. The majority (56%) hail from Mexico with another 22% coming from Latin America. Hence, greater than 75% of the illegal population is Hispanic.
The greatest argument against amnesty is that it is unfair to those who enter the country legally and are awaiting citizenship through legal means. To become a citizen legally is a lengthy process and averages eight years, but can take up to 13 years. Despite the negative media coverage of the US in the international press, we still remain the top country people immigrate to in the world. Of course, we would want to adequately screen potential new citizens, but should that process last 8-13 years? According to government websites, the entire process should take 3 years, so there is a serious disconnect between the “supposed to” and the reality. Should the US decrease this time problem, it would benefit all. In the post-9/11 world, immigration backlogs are not intrinsic to the US as other countries like Canada and Australia have backlogs.
First, we are not certain of the number of the approximately 11 million illegals here already ho would take advantage of an amnesty program if one were offered. It is possible that half would remain beholden to their home country and continue to live in the shadows. The last such attempt was the 2007 reforms. Illegals would be granted a temporary Z visa after passing a criminal background check and it would last for 2 years. After that time, they would be granted a permanent Z visa if: (1) they were here before a certain date, (2) they had not left the US for more than 6 months, (3) they were employed, and (4) they passed an enhanced background check. Assuming they satisfied all criteria, they would then be granted legal permanent status. From there, they could then apply for US citizenship. The entire process would be mandated to be a maximum of four years during which time the backlog of cases could be cleared up or reduced.
When originally introduced, the CBO estimated the bill would have cost, over ten years, $31 billion while generating $63 billion in additional tax revenue. While the CBO cannot go further than ten years in estimates, the Heritage Foundation estimates that over 35 years, the amnesty would have cost over $2.6 trillion, mainly attributable to Medicare and Social Security costs. However, the Heritage Foundation makes two serious errors. First, they fail to account for the additional tax revenue which would offset costs somewhat AND they make the erroneous assumption that all 11 million illegals would be granted amnesty or take advantage. This proves only that Conservative numbers can be manipulated with the best of the Liberal numbers.
Therefore, a modified “amnesty” program may be the best solution. This is essentially the theory put forth by Newt Gingrich that has generated so much “controversy” in Conservative circles. There should be two caveats up front. First, specifically excluded from any program should be anyone who has overstayed a visa, those already involved in any deportation proceeding and those willing to voluntarily return to their home country. Second, all efforts to secure the southern border- whether through virtual fences, limited fencing to create choke points, workplace enforcement, etc. must proceed unabated. If ANY “amnesty” program is to be offered up, then the Latino human rights groups need to shut up about these other programs. That is, if conservatives are to give a little in this area, liberals must concede even more.
Essentially, there would be three tiers of illegals to be dealt with. The first tier would be those here greater than 12 years (Newt said 25 years). This would be the group most likely to have established roots in the community. Provided they can prove they lived here greater than 12 years and have no criminal background here or their home country, they would be granted an expedited pathway to citizenship. Based upon the most recent estimates, it is believed that 40% of illegals would fall in this category, or a potential pool of 4.4 million people. Lets just assume that 85% take advantage. That translates into a possible 3.75 million people.
The second tier would be for those here 2-12 years and their “pathway” would mirror those of the 2007 proposed reforms. They would have to pass a background check, prove they were here on a continuous basis, disclose employment history. If they used falsified documents to obtain employment, they would have to pay a fine. After two years, they would be granted Temporary Legal Status after they paid a fine for entering the country illegally, essentially acknowledging they violated the law. Before being granted legal permanent status, they would have to prove English proficiency and make arrangements to pay at least 25% of past FICA taxes (if they indeed avoided them in the past). They would not be eligible for any Federal benefit until granted full citizenship and would relinquish them if collecting now. The entire process could take an estimated 5 years. In effect, it becomes a probationary period.
For those here less than two years, they have no excuse and must return to their home country or be deported. They may re-enter the country under a revised visa program, but would go to the back of the line. In essence, once discovered, there would be an expedited path to deportation for this group.
For those who fail background checks, they would be deported. For those caught entering illegally after the law was passed, the US would cease the practice of catch and release and immediately deport the offenders. Anyone opting out of the program would be given a three-month window of opportunity after which time, if caught, they too would be deported. To the parents of the so-called anchor babies- a mere 3% of the problem- their parents would fall into the second tier. If they return to their home country, then any child under 4 would relinquish their US citizenship.
To summarize:
TIER length parameters solution
ONE 12+ yrs background check citizenship
TWO 2-12 yrs background check enhanced 2007
prove residency reform proposals
prove employment
pay illegal entry fine
English proficiency
pay 25% back FICA*
THREE less than none deportation
2 years

Assuming 50% took advantage, that would solve 100% of the problem. The 50% would go on the books basically. The bulk of them- those here greater than 12 years- are most likely the lowest candidates for deportation. For the remainder, they would relinquish any claims against deportation. In fact, they could return under an orderly visa program. It must be stressed also that current enforcement efforts would continue and, in fact, be enhanced and strengthened. For a little bit of this, we get a whole lot of that.
I realize that there are many who are of the opinion that any amnesty is a non-starter. However, that intransigence only makes the problem stay the same (which is bad) or worse. Reality dictates that we will never deport 100% of illegal immigrants to this country. It would be a costly and time consuming effort even if we built a fence with 200 foot walls surrounded by machine gun nests with land mines thrown in for good measure. Oh- and the fence extended 200 feet underground also.
NO country in this world, despite what they say about us, has been more accepting of immigrants- legal and illegal- than the United States. It is what makes this country the greatest in the world- not “just another country.” It is our acceptance of immigrants and their willingness to come here (sometimes under the most dire of circumstances) that makes us the greatest country. No one aspires to become a Mexican citizen, or even an Australian or British citizen to the degree people aspire to become American citizens. When we say “amnesty,” it is not a capitulation to so-called liberal ideas. Amnesty, if we want to call it that, has been used numerous times in our history and we remain the greatest country in the world. By offering out a limited plan, we remove the complaints of the opposition and force them to compromise on border security. We gain the best of two worlds.
In part 8, I hope to respond to some comments and to summarize. To those who have read, commented and suggested, thank you. Even through disagreement we move forward.