Total Amnesty for Illegal Aliens?

By Couch, Jim F.; Barrett, J. Douglas et al. | The World and I, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Total Amnesty for Illegal Aliens?


Couch, Jim F., Barrett, J. Douglas, Williams, Peter M., The World and I


Jim F. Couch is professor of economics, J. Douglas Barrett is associate professor of quantitative analysis, and Peter M. Williams is assistant professor of economics at the University of North Alabama. Their article "Nation of Origin Bias and the Enforcement of Immigration Law" is forthcoming in the book European Heritage of Economics and Social Science (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht).

Those hoping to attain legal status have a clear incentive to look askance at the arduous process of legal immigration and illegally enter and remain until absolution is granted.

Surprisingly, arguments surrounding the subject of immigration have changed little over the years. Consider the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America's foremost essayists, in "Wealth" (which appeared in The Conduct of Life in 1860). Emerson asserts that

"Britain, France, and Germany ... send out, first attracted by the fame of our advantages, first their thousands, then their millions of poor people, to share the crop. At first we employ them and increase our prosperity; but in the artificial system of society and of protected labor ... there come presently checks and stoppages. Then we refuse to employ poor men. They go into the poor-rates, and though we refuse wages, we must now pay the same in the form of taxes. Again, it turns out that the largest proportion of crimes are committed by foreigners. The cost of education of the posterity of this great colony, I will not compute. We cannot get rid of their will to be supported. That has become an inevitable element of our politics; and, for their votes, each of the dominant parties counts and assists them to get it executed."

Similar arguments have been posited over the years. The nations of origin have differed, as the end of the nineteenth century saw clusters of German and central European immigrants, while the turn of the century saw many from Italy; the twentieth century featured many Russians, Poles, Asians, and Latin Americans, among others. In any event, the numbers have reached such a magnitude that any hopes of management by immigration officials have been lost.

The high numbers of immigrants from many nations led President Reagan to sign the Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Aliens were granted a one-year period (from May 1987 to May 1988) to apply for legal status. The only eligible aliens were those who had lived in America since the beginning of 1982, and they were granted amnesty. The administration hoped to reduce future illegal immigration by adopting sanctions against employers. Those firms hiring illegal aliens would be punished, and the resulting reduction in employment opportunities was expected to decrease the flow of unlawful immigration.

As reported by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, some 2.8 million immigrants who illegally resided in the United States were granted the status of legal residents.

The desired results of IRCA did not follow. American businesses continued to hire low-wage foreign labor, as firms were rarely punished. No efficacious system to assess the legal status of workers has been established. Thus, the flow of illegal immigration continued at a rate of one-half million per year in the nineties, reaching an estimated eight million by 2000, as reported by the Census Bureau.

Troubled native Americans

Many Americans find these numbers troubling. According to a 2002 Zogby Poll, "nearly three in five Americans feel that the United States should admit fewer immigrants into the country each year." Furthermore, the poll results indicate that "two-thirds of likely voters in the U.S. (65 percent) disagree that foreigners residing in the United States should be given amnesty."

Due to the unpopularity of amnesty efforts, policy proponents have chosen the euphemism "earned legalization," which allows illegal immigrants to obtain the legal status by establishing a work history. …

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