Dreaming of Amnesty: Legalization Will Spur More Illegal Immigration

David Inserra, Heritage Foundation, October 30, 2017

The Trump Administration announced on September 5 that it was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) administrative amnesty program, with a six-month wind-down period.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in ending the program (which is now down to 690,000 beneficiaries), declared it “an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch.”

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Congress is considering legislation that would provide amnesty to those brought illegally to the U.S. as minors, including those who may not have been eligible for the DACA program.

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Such legislative efforts are fundamentally flawed and will encourage more illegal immigration. Rather than implementing amnesty, Congress should focus on a step-by-step process to enhance immigration enforcement and improve the legal immigration system.

Fundamental Problems

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Amnesty as Incentive for More Illegal Immigration. An amnesty-centric approach to immigration reform does nothing to discourage additional illegal immigration. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 provided 2.7 million illegal immigrants with legal status and access to citizenship. The House committee that crafted the legislation claimed “a one-time legalization program is a necessary part of an effective enforcement program.”

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With 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the country, and with a constant push for new amnesties, these promises have proven empty.

There were a few Senators who correctly predicted that the 1986 amnesty would encourage more illegal immigration. Former Senator Jesse Helms (R– NC) argued that “[a]mnesty for the millions of illegal aliens currently in these United States would establish a dangerous precedent which could well encourage additional illegal immigration.” Former Senator Phil Gramm (R–TX) stated that “there may be those in other countries who will say that since we granted amnesty once, maybe we will do it again.”

More recently, this lesson of history repeated itself, as President Barack Obama’s DACA program and general weakening of immigration enforcement contributed to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families at the U.S. border.

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History has proven time and time again that amnesty and non-enforcement policies only encourage more illegal immigration.

Amnesty as an Excuse. Beyond encouraging more illegal immigration and thus further weakening the immigration system, amnesty legislation is generally an excuse to delay other immigration reforms or improve enforcement. For example, if the SUCCEED Act or similar bills were to pass, they would certainly come with promises of “future” border security, increased enforcement, and needed reforms to the legal immigration system.

Such promises of future action, like Senator Simpson’s broken promises in 1986, cannot bind future Congresses or Administrations. During the IRCA debate, its promoters promised that IRCA would improve border security and that new enforcement measures…

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By making amnesty the first and central part of legislation, Congress is abdicating its pre-eminent duty to make sure the U.S. has a well-enforced immigration system that is beneficial to the U.S. In essence, Congress never solves the root causes of illegal immigration, instead hoping that another amnesty will work where past ones have not only failed, but made the problem even worse.

Amnesty as Law Breaker.

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Amnesty proposals, however, reward those who have broken the law. Beyond incentivizing additional illegal immigration, amnesty is unfair to all law-abiding Americans, legal immigrants, and those waiting to come legally to the U.S.

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A Better Path Forward

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Congress should:

Enhance border security.

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Strengthen immigration enforcement.

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Improve the legal immigration process.

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Take a step-by-step approach. After improving enforcement and the legal immigration system, trends in illegal immigration should change for the better. After ensuring that these reforms are having the desired effects, then—and only then— should Congress discuss potential solutions for those here illegally.

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