In the debate over illegal immigration, one word causes consternation: amnesty. One side is adamant that its proposals don’t amount to amnesty, the other insists that they do. But both sides are missing the point. The real question is not whether that word “amnesty” overstates the defects of the bill, but how very much it understates them.
Amnesty raises the question of moral hazard. If we overlook law-breaking not just in occasional individual cases, but systematically and on a large scale, we undermine respect for the rule of law. Still, on occasion an amnesty can be relatively harmless. If the IRS announced that anyone who has failed to file a tax return for some years can for a stated period of time file without facing charges for breaking the tax laws, little harm is done.
But what if the IRS were to say that the delinquent taxpayer need not pay the back taxes he or she owes? That would be a very different matter: an amnesty doesn¹t mean that you can keep what you stole, it only means that you won’t be prosecuted for having stolen it. Under an amnesty, law-breakers will be treated no worse than those who obey the law–they will be returned to the condition they were in before their offense. But amnesty doesn¹t mean that they can profit from their illegal behavior.
Now let’s go one step further: suppose that the IRS were not only to let tax delinquents keep their loot, but also offer them a large reward for coming forward. That would be moral hazard with a vengeance, because now breaking the law would be more attractive than obeying it. But that is essentially what the gang-of-eight’s bill does. In addition to amnesty (not being prosecuted for breaking the law), it allows illegal immigrants to keep what they stole (residency) and even to get a substantial reward into the bargain (state welfare benefits, and a path to citizenship).
It makes no difference if illegals take longer to get their citizenship than those who come here legally. What matters is not that illegals are treated somewhat worse than legal immigrants, but that they are treated much better than those who have resisted the temptation to cross the border illegally. The message that the gang-of-eight are sending to them is that their restraint was a bad mistake: they should have broken the law and then we’d have rewarded them for doing so.
Everyone agrees that any reform measure must as a first order of business get control of our borders. But a reform that offers a reward to those who cross them illegally is the best way to lose that control. New illegal immigrants would pour across the borders when they see how well their predecessors were treated. Their numbers are already increasing in response to this bill. Can we really afford to let the world know that we don’t care if immigrants treat our immigration laws with contempt because we ourselves do?
Amnesty is a fuzzy word with overtones of Christian forgiveness: who but the hard-hearted could be against it? That is why it’s important to understand that what the gang-of-eight is proposing goes way beyond amnesty, and that it’s the things that the bill throws in in addition to amnesty that are its really objectionable features.
If we institute a guest worker program that greatly expands opportunities to come and work here, that program would naturally include background checks to rule out those with criminal records. (Yes, breaking the immigration laws really is a crime, one punished with serious jail time in Mexico, for example.) If we were to say that people whose only transgression was illegal entry into the US would still be eligible for the program, that would be a genuine amnesty: people who broke one particular law get treated in the same way as those who did not. Let¹s not misuse the word “amnesty” so that it is made to cover the quite different notion of rewarding and encouraging people who break the law. A real amnesty is worth discussing. Offering rewards for law-breaking is not. A bill that does that should never get a single vote.
John M. Ellis is an emeritus professor and former Dean of the Graduate Division at UC Santa Cruz.
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