HUENNEKENS: The Case Against Amnesty


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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that amnesty for illegal immigrants is a bad idea. You can find a counterpoint here, where Charles Kolb, former Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy under George H.W. Bush, argues that Republicans need to embrace amnesty.

When President Reagan signed his amnesty bill – the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) –  in 1986, he remarked that “It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here” and concluded that “future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Thirty-five years later, we are again debating the issue of amnesty for illegal aliens. Although this time, the problem is inarguably worse: we now have anywhere from 11 to 14.5 million illegal aliens in the country. Subsequent years exposed IRCA’s enforcement measures as paper tigers, while millions of illegal aliens became citizens.

And now, we’re about to repeat that process all over again! Only this time, President Joe Biden’s amnesty does not even give us the courtesy of reforms to enforcement – it’s simply a citizenship giveaway, and it is terrible policy.

The fiscal cost of illegal aliens is well documented, and any amnesty promises to multiply these costs further. In 2017, the total cost of illegal immigration for the United States – at the federal, state and local levels – was approximately $116 billion. The Center for Immigration Studies estimated that every amnestied illegal alien would cost the Social Security trust fund $93,000 per recipient. An eleven-million-person amnesty would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars to the Social Security fund alone. This is to say nothing of other welfare programs, both federal and state.

This is not to disparage individual immigrants. It is a plain and simple fact that illegal aliens who qualify for this amnesty are not high earners, nor will they likely become high earners in their lifetime. By and large, amnesty recipients are more likely to be net drains on social safety nets, not net contributors.

This brings us to the societal cost of an 11 to 14.5-million-person amnesty. Armed with work authorization documents, these aliens will begin competing against Americans for jobs immediately – not when they get green cards. And they are not competing with think tank staffers or economists in their cozy Washington, D.C. offices. They are competing with blue-collar Americans hit hardest by the COVID-19 economic crisis.

Most illegal aliens work in manual labor or in the service sector. Not surprisingly, economists agree that large-scale amnesties – such as IRCA and the one proposed by Biden – do not harm the wages of high earners or the college-educated: they directly and negatively impact the wages of lower earning Americans and other, legal immigrants.

Tight labor markets – where the ratio of job-seekers to openings is narrow – constitute a better social policy than almost anything the federal government could come up with on its own. The invisible hand of tight labor markets pushes employers to hire individuals they would otherwise overlook – people like young single parents, former convicts, struggling veterans and even former addicts. As a society, we should encourage anything that gives struggling Americans access to jobs that can bring stability and upward mobility to their lives.

Many of these Americans work in the same industries that illegal aliens work in, and they compete for the same jobs. Flooding the job market that they work in with 11 million work-permitted aliens is a stab in the back to these Americans, and worse, it would come during an unprecedented economic crisis wrought by a deadly and still-raging pandemic.

The unemployment rate for the bottom quartile of Americans is currently 23 percent. In what universe does it make sense to dump 11 million people into that same quartile to compete with them for jobs and wages?

Finally, there are political costs to consider. Yes, I know, this is a quagmire that often mires any immigration debate. But it matters for those seriously discussing and grappling with the long-term effects of immigration policy, particularly involving an amnesty.

Despite what the Bush holdovers would have you believe, most former illegal aliens would not likely vote for Republicans. Putting 11-14.5 million on a pathway to citizenship is arguably as bad for Republican political outlooks as adding D.C. as the 51st state. Indeed, we see this argument often – that illegal aliens are “natural conservatives” who share the social views present in the GOP platform. No one has ever demonstrated that this carries any grain of truth when it comes to winning state and national elections. The overt supporters of illegal immigration – the Congressional Democrats and progressive advocacy groups – would reap the benefits of any amnesty, not Republicans.

Further, asserting that the issue of illegal immigration is the number one issue with Hispanic Americans is just making lazy assumptions. The GOP can and has attracted significant Hispanic support even with a strong emphasis on border security and stated opposition to amnesty. Donald Trump attracted more minority support – including Hispanics – than any Republican candidate in history, despite advocating for heightened immigration enforcement.

Bluntly stated, there are no good reasons to support the kind of amnesty proposed by President Biden. Amnesty proposals do not work, and never have. Worse, they negatively impact the wages and opportunities of those Americans who can least afford to bear the burdens of a struggling economy.

There is no case for amnesty, and certainly not in 2021.

Preston Huennekens is the Government Relations Manager at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).