While there’s little question that entering or remaining in a country without official authorization is unlawful, considerable controversy exists among governments and the general public about what should be the consequences for illegal immigration.
Possible government policies for dealing with those who illegally enter the country or unlawfully overstay a temporary visa cover a broad range of options.
At one extreme is amnesty or legalization, which often leads to citizenship for those meeting certain criteria, including residing in the country for a number of years, paying back taxes and not having committed a serious crime or felony.
At the other extreme is repatriation or deportation, which typically involves returning those who are unlawfully resident, particularly those who have also been convicted of crimes, back to their countries of origin.
In between those two extremes are a myriad of policy options to address illegal immigration that are often acrimoniously debated among a variety of competing interests, factions and groups.
Regarding the immigration process, a widespread consensus exists among governments and the general public that people wishing to immigrate should do so legally and safely, not unlawfully and dangerously. However, the large numbers of men, women and children wishing to immigrate far exceed the visas that receiving countries are normally prepared to grant. Consequently, with little or no opportunities for legal migration, many women and men turn to illegal immigration or overstay short-term visas.
A global survey undertaken several years ago reported that more than 750 million adult men and women wish to emigrate to another country. In striking contrast, the annual number of immigrants worldwide in recent years has been no more than about 5 million.
In the case of the United States, which is the largest destination country, the number of immigrants in the recent past has been around 1 million per year. However, the number of those wishing to emigrate to the United States is estimated at more than 150 million.
As a result of those huge demographic differences in the supply and demand of migrants, a worldwide clash involving many millions of people is taking place between those wishing to get into another country and those wishing to keep them out of their country.
There are a variety of arguments and concerns put forward for policies to deal with unauthorized migrants. While the areas of concerns are similar their interpretations and reasoning differ greatly.
Advocates for amnesty and regularization, for example, rely on compassion, costs, fairness, family integrity, economics, exploitation, logistics and security to make their case. They maintain that after residing and working in a country for many years, unauthorized migrants should be permitted to remain in the country, apply for legal residency and be eligible for citizenship.
Moreover, they firmly believe that unauthorized migrants should not be returned to extremely difficult and often dangerous living conditions in their origin countries. That position is felt to be especially relevant for those who were unlawfully brought into the country as children, often referred to as Dreamers.
Some U.S. jurisdictions, including cities, counties and states, do not agree with current immigration laws and do not fully cooperate with federal authorities regarding the arrest, detention and repatriation of unauthorized migrants. Some of those jurisdictions have become places of sanctuary for unauthorized migrants.
Those places have taken steps to integrate and assist unauthorized migrants and their families. Those steps include granting driver’s licenses, issuing identification cards, providing support and passing laws and provisions to prohibit asking about or disclosing an individual’s immigration status.
In addition, some Democratic presidential candidates and others want to decriminalize illegal U.S. border crossings. They argue that the current statute, Title 8, Section 1325 of the U.S. federal code, is of grave importance because it could be used in punitive fashion in the future against families and children under a policy similar to “zero tolerance”.
In contrast, those opposed to granting amnesty or legalization stress the importance of the rule of law, border security, crime, fairness, rewards, incentives, wage effects, public trust, societal costs and communal cohesion. Those who have broken the immigration laws, they maintain, should not be rewarded with citizenship or regularization.
They maintain that amnesty and legalization not only establishes an incentive for future illegal immigration, but it also undermines the public’s trust, creates social cleavages, redirects resources away from citizens and erodes support for legal immigration. Also, commitments to secure the borders in the future with meaningful enforcement, they maintain, invariably fail to materialize or are largely ineffective.
In addition, the promise of amnesty assists smugglers and human traffickers in their illegal immigration and exploitation activities. Government policies to stand down on deporting unauthorized migrants also helps smugglers in their efforts to recruit men, women as well as unaccompanied minors.
Despite the policies and programs of governments and the wishes of the general public in the destination countries, illegal immigration is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. The more developed regions, many with declining populations and aging rapidly, continue to attract foreign workers at virtually every employment level. The less developed regions, in contrast, have relatively young growing populations, with many in the working ages facing difficulties finding gainful employment and harsh living conditions.
As a result of those striking demographic and economic differences, increasing numbers of men and women in developing countries, especially those in the least developed, are deciding to migrate illegally to the comparatively wealthier nations.
What should be the consequences for those who migrate illegally or overstay a temporary visa continues to be a contentious, divisive political issue challenging governments and the public.
The outcome of the current White House and Congressional negotiations concerning immigration reform and the status of unauthorized migrants is uncertain. However, based on the experience of the recent past under both Republican and Democratic administrations, it appears likely that the outcome, with the possible exception of the Dreamers, will largely be a continuation of the status quo, including the hurried issuance of presidential executive actions.
Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."