Nativists quickly label any legalization plan as immigration amnesty and a magnet for more illegal immigration, but is that true? America’s Nativist lobby, led by the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA went into hyper-drive when the ‘gang of eight’ U.S. Senators announced plans for sweeping immigration reforms.
Net illegal immigration from Mexico recently dropped to zero, reflecting Mexico’s healthy economy and jobless U.S. economic recovery. Cartoonist Michael Ramirez offers his own perspective:
America’s Mass Amnesty Experience
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his The Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction giving amnesty to all confederates who swore a loyalty oath. Andrew Johnson continued Lincoln’s policy but added 14 exceptions.
Progressive era liberals were avid supporters of racial eugenics and passed very restrictive immigration laws to ban Chinese in 1882, all Asians in 1917 (Asiatic Barred Zone Act). Strict strict quotas followed in 1921 and 1924, with 85% of immigrant visas reserved for Nordic Northern/Western Europe, banning non-European immigration.
Early 20th century immigration shifted to Southern/Eastern Europe. Italy furnished 200,000 per year, but Italy’s quota was set at just 3,845! By the late 20s several million immigrants from Southern/Eastern Europe were here illegally, and granted immigration amnesty. In the 30s, “Mexicans” were blamed for depression era joblessness. One half million were deported; 60% of the “Mexicans” were citizens, and the rest mostly legal guest workers.
1965 immigration reforms removed nation quotas, and remains the policy foundation today. The “braceros” guest worker program implemented during wartime labor shortages was eliminated in 1960s due to pressure from big labor, laying the groundwork for future illegal immigration. Historically, whenever demand for immigrant labor far exceeds quotas, mass illegal immigration results.
During the Vietnam War, 100,000 Americans fled to avoid military service. In 1977, Jimmy Carter granted pardons to draft evaders, who by then had already lived at least several years in exile.
In 1986, Congress granted amnesty to most unauthorized immigrants, and 3 million received green cards. None of the dire consequences predicted by Nativists occurred. It’s no surprise we hear the same arguments today.
Is Immigration Amnesty a Magnet?
Opponents of immigration reform insist amnesty is a “magnet” for more law breaking, but what does history say?
In the civil war, millions of Americans committed treason, punishable by death, and yet despite Lincoln’s mass amnesty we have not experienced another civil war.
Did mass immigration amnesty to 1920s immigrants spark more illegal immigration? No. The great depression and massive unemployment deterred immigration in general. The next wave of mass illegal immigration came in the 1950s, when labor needs of a resurgent post-war economy far outstripped braceros quotas.
There’s no evidence amnesty for draft evasion led to more draft evasion. The Vietnam war was hugely unpopular among young Americans at the time. Many believed they would be denied conscientious objector status.
Did the 1986 Immigration Amnesty Increase Illegal Immigration? What is Amnesty?
Immigration restrictionists quickly label any immigration reform leading to legal status as immigration amnesty. However, amnesty is akin to a pardon, forgiveness without punishment for a wrong. All proposals in recent years required stiff fines, and long waits for permanent resident status behind those already ‘in line.’ Some plans barred citizenship forever. Nativists intentionally conflate “amnesty” with “path to legalization” despite a range of solutions between mass deportations and mass immigration amnesty.
Congress promised to follow up with guest worker reforms and border security. Guest worker reforms still haven’t happened to this day, due to Big Labor opposition. Congress did follow-up with more border security, but slowly.
Is Immigration Amnesty the Answer?
Immigration amnesty by itself will not fix our broken immigration system, and is unfair to legal immigrants who waited a long time, some since 1989. Problems are solved by addressing root causes, not ‘band aids.’ We admit 1.8 million guest workers each year, while another 7.5 million ‘guest workers’ lack legal status, filling jobs not enough Americans want. Robust guest worker programs that flex with our economy are urgently needed, and would enhance border security by diverting migrant workers to legal channels.
Nativists claim we are overrun with immigrants and our economy will collapse due to immigration reform, but as a percentage of population the U.S. ranks #22 among 34 OECD nations. Our legal immigration level is just 0.334% of population. Tiny Luxembourg ranks #1, accepting 3.116%, while affluent Switzerland accepts 1.751%. Canada accepts 0.825%, 2-1/2 times that of the U.S. The Nativist lobby wants draconian cuts to ‘traditional’ 1956 levels, or 0.084%, #32 of 34 OECD nations. No, we are not overrun with immigrants!
The lesson of 1986 is piecemeal solutions and ‘ band aids’ don’t work. If Congress followed up with robust guest worker programs, we wouldn’t have 10 million immigrants here illegally! True, we have more than in 1986, but illegal immigration waxes and wanes with our economy. The magnet is jobs, not future amnesty that is far from certain.