Linking Amnesty to Border Security

When issues become complicated, sometimes it is necessary to return to common sense notions to sort through conflicting priorities. At present, Congress is debating what to do about high levels of illegal immigration and a large number of illegal immigrants who have already made lives in the United States. The best current estimates indicate that there are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Approximately 500,000 additional illegal immigrants make it to the United States each year, mostly from Mexico. This number is supplemented by 800,000 more legal immigrants. These numbers are causing economic disruption, particularly in border states. Moreover, a certain disrespect for the law is cultivated when so many people bypass normal, albeit cumbersome, legal immigration procedures.

Most Americans are ambivalent. Being a nation of immigrants, we recognize that immigrants rejuvenate and enrich the country. In the short term, immigration may suppress wages, but in the long term immigrants add wealth. Without immigrants, Americans would not be reproducing themselves. Young immigrants will provide an important source of income that will support retiring baby boomers. However, illegal immigration is unfair to those who wait in line and it permits no way to appropriately vet and assimilate new immigrants.

No rational immigration policy, whether to increase or decrease the immigration rate, can be implemented without first controlling the borders. Indeed, one of the defining obligations of a sovereign nation is to control its borders. The question of what levels of immigration are desirable and manageable cannot even be properly posed unless borders are controlled. Hence, the first goal of immigration legislation must be to secure the borders. The exact manner of achieving this is an empirical question that can be explored. Certainly it will involve some combination of barriers or fences, increased border patrols, and high-tech surveillance. No border will ever be entirely secure, but the 500,000 per year number needs to be radically reduced.

The more difficult question is what to do about the immigrants that are already here. Simple justice would demand that they be deported. However, the numbers are so large as to make this impractical. America would not want to become the sort of intrusive state necessary to locate and deport 11 million people. Humanitarian issues would dreadfully complicate matters. Many illegal aliens have children who were born here and thus American citizens. One would be faced with the prospect of splitting children from parents or forcing young American citizens to accompany their parents to Mexico or some other country.

On the other hand, to grant even an “earned” amnesty to these people would encourage others to cross the borders in the hopes that one day they also would be granted amnesty. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, with the promise that future immigration would be controlled. Whether because of government lethargy or the tremendous allure of jobs in the United States, that promise was never kept. The public is, therefore, realistically reluctant to accept similar assurances now.

A reasonable compromise would be to tie the effectiveness of border control directly to amnesty. Consider the present 500,000 number of illegal aliens crossing the border each year as a starting point. Allow one year for the implementation of effective border control. After that point, make sure that the sum of the estimated number of illegal immigrants per year, plus the number of increased allowed immigration, plus the number of current resident illegal immigrants granted amnesty totals 500,000. If the illegal border crossings do not decrease then there would be no amnesty and no increase in the number of allowed immigrants.

For example, if the border enforcement is say 80% effective then 100,000 illegal immigrants would still be illegally entering the country. In such a case, we would add 200,000 to the additional number of legal immigrants allowed and 200,000 current resident illegal immigrants would be granted amnesty. If the border enforcement effectiveness wanes, then so to would the number of illegal immigrants granted amnesty.

This plan would have the virtue of making it in the best interest of current resident illegal immigrants and those who wish to legally immigrate to support effective border patrol. It would also provide continuing leverage on the federal government to maintain border security.

The numbers proposed here are just notional. One could imagine giving different weights to increasing the number of legal immigrants or legitimizing the ones already here. If the borders seemed secure over an extended number of years, the process of granting amnesty could be accelerated. Since there would likely be more applicants seeking amnesty than might be granted, one could give priority to those who had assimilated by learning English and who had been here the longest.

In any case, acceptable and reasonable immigration reform begins with a secure border.

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