Legalize it?

Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The Case for Immigration Amnesty

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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To understand the case for or against immigration amnesty you have to start with The Fact: There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Almost all of them came here under President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton or even before. 

Stating The Fact is important because you won’t hear it uttered by Republican politicians preparing to mount the barricades against President Barack Obama’s impending executive action. They love to talk about “border security.” Depending on the rhetorical needs of the moment, they relish tales either of the tyranny of a president who crushes opponents without remorse or of the weakness of a president who cowers in fear. 

However, you will find it very difficult to get any of these politicians to discuss The Fact. Ohio Governor John Kasich sort of did this week, and even sort of mentioning The Fact counts as courage. Indeed, it's difficult to find a House or Senate Republican today who will even acknowledge The Fact, let alone propose to deal with it.

Swerving Path to Citizenship

Yet even Republican hard-liners won’t articulate support for deporting The Fact, regardless of what they or their constituents might secretly desire. By default, that leaves two choices: some form of the status quo or some form of amnesty.

The status quo has little to recommend it. If you are worried about The Fact driving down wages or hurting taxpayers, as some opponents of immigration reform are, the status quo is your enemy. It leaves millions without legal protection from labor exploitation. It also restricts economic mobility and access to credit. It makes investing in personal capital -- education, skills -- risky, and investing in a home or business even more so. The threat of deportation -- keep in mind that the Obama administration has deported roughly two million individuals -- also entails the threat of personal financial ruin.

Amnesty is offensive to Americans who view The Fact as a collection of lawbreakers. But making immigrants suffer in legal limbo, with the constant threat of deportation hanging over them and their loved ones, serves no practical or moral purpose. Will they become better people as they wait? Or, in lieu of deportation, is suffering itself the point?

Most Americans support an earned path to legalization and citizenship. That is precisely the course that the Senate endorsed in 2013 and the House rejected. If House Republicans had been willing to pass an earned path to citizenship, this controversy would have ended in 2013. Instead, the only legislation they passed was an attempt to strip young immigrants who had arrived as children -- “Dreamers” -- of the right to study and work here. That's a very effective way to punish. Does it serve some other useful goal?

If the purpose of leaving The Fact unresolved is to condemn the lax immigration policies that preceded the Obama administration, then by all means wail away. But it won’t change the past. If the idea is to set an example to deter future immigrants, it’s a pointless exercise. A secure border can deter them. So can prospects for a better life at home. The enmity of U.S. politicians, however, is not terribly daunting to a Guatemalan mother fleeing a murderous gang that controls her neighborhood. In any case, focusing on the past or the future is just one more way of avoiding dealing with The Fact that is here and now.

So the question is whether illegal immigrants should remain in legal limbo, with their economic prospects blunted, their ambitions stunted -- all for no gain whatsoever to the nation at large. (By contrast, citizenship for The Fact would lower the deficit and aid the economy).

In the U.S., of all places on earth, condemnation of The Fact on moral grounds is especially difficult to sustain. Illegal immigration isn't exactly alien to these shores; it preceded the nation’s founding. In 1763, King George III drew a border along the Allegheny Mountains and prohibited settlement west of it. George Washington was among those who violated the law, speculating in land on the other side. 

Our national character was forged in no small degree by our scrappy determined ancestors who risked their lives to get here and exhibited enormous grit to make it. Many were hated by those already here. No one is proposing open borders or amnesty for all forever. But The Fact isn't going away. If amnesty is unacceptable, what do immigration opponents propose?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net