The amnesty that never ends

Advocates for amnesty argue that the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally should be legalized.

They claim we need to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows.” But illegal immigrants are very visible  — they attend public schools, obtain health services at hospital emergency rooms at taxpayer expense and even testify before Congress.


Illegal immigration will always exist, regardless of what immigration bill is enacted. Some immigrants will not want to wait in line, others will take their chances and work illegally and still others will risk using fraudulent documents. So saying we need to take care of everyone in the country illegally would lead to a rolling amnesty because there will always be illegal immigrants.

In addition, amnesty would enable illegal immigrants to work in the United States. This would be a great deal for individuals who came to the United States illegally, but come at a high price for legal immigrants and American workers. The increase in competition would harm the employment prospects and depress the wages of American workers. With millions of Americans and legal immigrants already underemployed, why enable millions of others to compete with them? 

Immigrants who respect the immigration system and play by the rules should be treated better than those who have ignored the law. 

Many individuals have waited years to obtain lawful status in America. How would they feel if they were to see illegal immigrants rewarded after they broke the rules and entered the country illegally? What kind of message would this send — that if they had entered illegally, they would have been rewarded too?

The Senate plan would provide legalization and a pathway to citizenship for almost all immigrants here illegally. It also would offer amnesty to the relatives of illegal immigrants who live outside the United States, and even to illegal immigrants who have already been deported home.

But we have no obligation to address the legal status of everyone in the country illegally. America already has the most generous immigration system in the world, admitting an estimated one million legal immigrants each year. Those in the country illegally can always do what generations before them have done: get in line and wait their turn to be admitted. 

Amnesty is not a new solution to illegal immigration. When the 1986 amnesty law was enacted, it was sold as a one-time legalization and part of a broader immigration enforcement program. More than 3 million immigrants were legalized, but the enforcement never occurred. Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. 

If we enact amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants today, millions more will continue to come tomorrow. That’s why an enforcement-first approach is the only real solution to the problem of illegal immigration. 

Unfortunately, the Senate proposal falls far short on enforcement. 

First, it would never secure the border. The proposal plans to mostly secure the “high risk sectors,” which make up less than half the border. But there is no guarantee that will even happen because there are no deadlines. In fact, if the high-risk sectors are not secured after five years, a commission is established to make recommendations. That sure doesn’t sound like a secure border. 

Meanwhile, millions of illegal immigrants in the country will be legalized in six months. This will only encourage more illegal immigration. So the bill is legalization first and border security later, if ever. 

In 2010, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that only 6.5 percent of the southern border is under “full control” of the border patrol, and 40 percent of all illegal immigrants come to the United States legally but overstay their visas. But the Senate proposal’s entry-exit system would only apply to airports and seaports, not land checkpoints, where most crossings occur. And again, there are no deadlines.

In addition to ramping up border security, we need to shut off the jobs magnet that draws millions of illegal immigrants to the United States. Worksite enforcement efforts protect scarce jobs for U.S. citizens and ensure that U.S. employers hire legal workers. 

Under the Obama administration, according to the Department of Homeland Security, worksite enforcement has dropped 70 percent. That means it’s easier for illegal immigrants to compete with legal workers and drive down wages. We need a national E-Verify program that helps employers ensure that they hire legal workers.

Without real and robust immigration enforcement, the flow of illegal immigration will continue. What the Senate proposal really promises is a never-ending amnesty for a never-ending stream of illegal immigrants. 

Smith is the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and serves on the Immigration subcommittee.