Immigration amnesty is a formula for permanent dysfunction

Our immigration system is not broken. We don’t need, and Congress shouldn’t enact, amnesty.

Both my parents were immigrants. All Americans are either immigrants or descendants of ancestors who came from somewhere else, including Native Americans. We should all respect and admire immigrants. But that’s not the question.

The question is: how many? Specifically, should we enforce a numerical limit on immigration to the U.S., or alternatively, should we allow unlimited immigration, as we did for our first century?

It’s a binary choice: an enforced limit or no limits. Our failure and inability to clearly choose is at the root of our dilemma over immigration policy. We keep searching for a third way, but there isn’t one.

I respect those who openly advocate for unlimited immigration to the U.S. Open borders is an intellectually coherent, defensible position. Different arguments can be made for unlimited immigration including philosophical, religious, historical, utilitarian, libertarian, and social justice.

But it is neither intellectually coherent nor defensible to argue that we should retain legal limits on immigration, but we don’t have to enforce them, and we can instead periodically amnesty immigration law violators whenever they attain a large number. If we’re going to allow unlimited immigration anyway, why pay for the expensive window dressing of immigration enforcement?

The U.S. immigration system is the most generous in the world, providing each year more green cards for legal permanent residence with a clear path to full citizenship than all the rest of the nations of the world combined.

But to enforce the numerical limitation, U.S. immigration law provides that immigration violators can be removed from the U.S. after being found inadmissible or deportable. The enforcement provisions of U.S. immigration law are essential to maintaining the limit on immigration.

We are told our immigration system is broken, the main evidence for which is the presence of 11 million illegal immigrants. Actual causes include ineffective employer sanctions, the mistaken belief that the 1986 amnesty would “solve” our illegal immigration problem instead of attracting more illegal immigrants, and ineffective management and political interference in immigration enforcement.

Illegal immigrants make a rational choice when they choose to violate our immigration laws. A former Temple University colleague said, “The poor people of the world may be poor, but they are not stupid. They are as capable of doing cost-benefit analysis to determine their own self-interest as anyone in this room.”

Those considering illegal immigration to the U.S. weigh costs, like the risks of getting caught, against benefits of a better life. To get more illegal immigration, we should lower costs, through discretionary prosecution of violators, and increase benefits, through amnesty. Conversely, to reduce the number of illegal immigrants, we should increase costs, through more effective enforcement, and lower benefits through more certain removal from the U.S.

Border enforcement alone will never suffice to enforce an immigration limit. Would-be law violators have to be deterred from making the attempt through proof that costs outweigh benefits.

Why is enforcing an immigration limit hard? First, there’s a constant argument over what the limit should be. And within the limitation, are we admitting the right kind of immigrants or not? Do we need more high skill or low skill labor? That’s a permanent, continuing fight.

The hardest thing about enforcing a limit on immigration is requiring us to say no to people who remind us of our ancestors, who are neither criminals nor national security threats, who just want to work hard for a better life. And if they come in violation of our limit, we have to deport them to raise the costs of illegal immigration and deter other would-be illegal immigrants.

Can we do that? If not, we should just declare the borders open to all hard-working immigrants like our ancestors. We can then save the billions in taxpayer dollars spent trying to enforce immigration limits.

What we can’t do is keep the limits, but not enforce them against anyone but criminals and national security threats. We can’t keep spending money on enforcement, but then give amnesty all who come illegally. That’s a formula for permanent dysfunction.

The alternative to the false fix of “comprehensive immigration reform” is a series of smaller reforms, continuing review and adjustments to our immigration limits, and more certain enforcement of whatever limits on immigration we enact.

We must banish the illusion of a big, one-time “fix” of our immigration system, that we can get it off our plates once-and-for-all, and never have to deal with it again. We will be dealing with immigration forever. Get used to it!

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