Any legalization of illegal immigrants — either through legislation or executive fiat — would undoubtedly encourage more illegal immigration, making the current crisis look almost insignificant by comparison. This should be well-understood by former La Raza Vice President Cecilia Muñoz, who currently serves in the White House as assistant to President Obama and director of the Domestic Policy Council.
Only four years after the comprehensive amnesty of 1986 was signed into law, Muñoz authored a report for La Raza in which she noted that the amnesty did not stop illegal immigration. She noted that La Raza had worked hard for years to "shape legislation which would control illegal immigration without infringing on Hispanic rights, and which would bring the sizeable undocumented population ... out of the shadows." This legislation would become known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which, among other things, amnestied nearly 3 million illegal immigrants and made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal aliens.
The legalization process happened up front, but the enforcement provisions in the bill never really materialized. Not surprisingly, illegal immigration was not controlled and people continued coming illegally, hoping for some sort of legalization. It is estimated that the overall illegal alien population for 1980 was at between 2.5 million and 3.5 million. About 3 million illegal aliens were legalized under IRCA, leaving an illegal population of about 2 million by 1988. It is estimated that by 1990, 3.5 million illegal aliens lived here. By October 1992, the illegal immigrant population was nearly 4 million.
In the 1990 report, Muñoz noted that La Raza "estimates that the size of the undocumented population today, perhaps three to four million persons, equals that of the early 1980s, when the debate over IRCA took place." She continued: "In the wake of this 'one-time only' program, the nation appears to be left with at least as many undocumented people as when it first considered these proposals."
In all likelihood, another amnesty would have similar results. It would encourage people to come illegally and any enforcement provisions would take years to get up and running, assuming they ever did. In the same report, Muñoz called for an end to workplace enforcement — the main enforcement provision in the amnesty. Again, this was only a few years after IRCA was signed into law. Similarly, within 24 hours of the recent Senate amnesty bill (S. 744) passing the Senate, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) virtually promised a lawsuit on the bill's border enforcement provisions, calling them "offensive." And now that the Congress has rejected amnesty, any lawless, unilateral amnesty from the Obama administration would be very unlikely to have any enforcement provisions attached.
Despite presenting no evidence that comprehensive amnesties reduce illegal immigration, amnesty advocates argue that if S. 744 had been signed into law last year, the current influx of illegal immigration would not be occurring. Just recently Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that passage of the bill would have stopped illegal immigration because "It would have been very clear that you couldn't come here now."
In reality, the message foreigners would be hearing is that if they sneak into the United States illegally, they can get amnestied. And they would come, regardless of whether technicalities in the 1,000-plus page bill would prevent their application from going through. The Obama administration is well aware that the president's lawless Deferred Action policy is encouraging people to pay smugglers to bring them and their children to the U.S. border, even though they are technically ineligible on account of the fact that the policy is only for illegal aliens already inside the United States as of June 15, 2007. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently issued an open letter to people currently crossing the border illegally in which he lays out the reasons they are not eligible for legalization under the Deferred Action policy. It is quite revealing that Johnson also felt it necessary to explain that they are not eligible for legalization through the Senate's amnesty bill; even without being signed into law, the White House believes the failed legislation is encouraging illegal immigration.
If President Obama wanted to discourage the current wave of illegal immigration, he would be giving speeches declaring that illegal immigration is not tolerated and those who come illegally will not be receiving legal status. He would point out the dangers of traveling illegally through the desert. He would warn against involvement with human smugglers. He would point out the fact that Americans have rejected the idea of amnesty through their legislators multiple times. And he would be vigorously enforcing immigration law.
Instead, Obama has been narrowing the scope of immigration enforcement — deportations resulting from interior enforcement have declined some 40 percent since 2011, for example. As Obama's former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director John Sandweg recently told the Los Angeles Times, "If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero — it's just highly unlikely to happen."
Amid the ongoing border crisis, the president used three immigration-related speeches to push the Senate amnesty bill and to promise that he would unilaterally legalize millions of illegal immigrants if the Senate bill does not become law. And now that it appears that S. 744 has been left on the ash heap of history, White House staffers are busy promising some sort of lawless amnesty by the end of summer.
These actions and promises only empower human smugglers and perpetuate illegal immigration. Any new mass legalization program will only make things worse.
Feere is a legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.