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Amnesty by another name is still amnesty: Bush compounds an immigration disaster

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 12, 2004

When President Bush unveiled his vision of what a "more rational, and more humane" immigration policy would look like, he went out of his way to insist that he opposes amnesty. The initial Washington Post report on details of the plan characterized it as something other than a "blanket amnesty." But to offer legal "temporary worker" status and eventually U.S. citizenship to any large number of illegal aliens is simply amnesty dressed up as something new – and is likely to produce the same results.

Bush's proposal is supposed to be more of a general framework than a detailed program and no actual legislation implementing it has been introduced as of this writing. But if anything like it does become law, it will stand as the most disastrous action of his presidency. Despite all the cosmetic improvements to border security the Bush amnesty-by-another name plan is said to contain – to make it, as the Washington Post reported, "more palatable to conservatives", in reality it takes already porous borders and pries them further open still at the expense of American taxpayers and workers.

Amnesties send an unmistakable message to would-be illegal aliens that a country's borders are not to be respected and its immigration laws are not to be taken seriously. The end result is more illegal immigration: After the last amnesty in 1986 (and after it became clear that the federal government was not serious about enforcing the sanctions against employers of illegal workers that were adopted at the same time to make that legislation "more palatable to conservatives" also), the population of illegals increased from about 2.7 million then to 8 to 12 million today. "Temporary workers" have a similar result. As John O'Sullivan, editor of The National Interest and an editor-at-large of National Review, recently wrote, "Experience from Germany to California shows that 'guest-worker' programs invariably increase illegal immigration since they create welcoming cultural enclaves of foreign nationals into which the 'illegals' promptly vanish without trace."

Then there is the matter of these temporary workers and illegal aliens having babies on U.S. soil. A peculiarity of the Fourteenth Amendment automatically confers citizenship upon these children, keeping their parents in the country. As these immigrants are legalized, they will bring in still more relatives under the law's family reunification provisions. Chain migration has been constant feature of our post-1965 immigration policy. The end result of the Bush plan will be to compound this and increase both legal and illegal immigration massively.

Proponents of amnesty by another name, particularly its conservative defenders, insist surrender is the only realistic approach to our out-of-control immigration system. We share a border with a country significantly poorer than us and we are creating a surplus of critical jobs that Americans just won't do.

Yet other countries seem able to enforce a tolerable level of immigration restrictions, including the U.S. up until recent decades despite the income gap between it and its neighbor to the south. That neighbor, Mexico, still does to this day – faced with even poorer and less stable neighbors to its south, it is hardly a beacon of open borders. Serious border enforcement could do something to cut the 700,000 to 800,000 annual illegal entries, while stepped up domestic enforcement can reduce the incentive for such entries. As for these jobs Americans supposedly won't do, the fact is that they won't do them at their current wage rates. Encouraging the mass importation of cheap foreign labor – whether illegal immigrants or federally approved "temporary workers" – insures that these wages will continue to remain below what most Americans can accept.

The underlying assumption that our economy would be imperiled by cutting off the flow of legal and illegal immigrants significantly less skilled than the U.S. labor force is highly questionable. The consensus among labor economists, as found in the National Research Council's 1997 New Americans study and elsewhere, is that the economic gain from this is miniscule. Balanced against the enormous fiscal strain it puts on the areas most heavily impacted by failed immigration policies as well as the tendency of reliance upon cheap labor to retard mechanization, it may be a wash or worse.

Nor will it do to say that we're stuck with the 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants who are here, so the only thing we can do is legalize them. Regardless of the feasibility or even desirability of mass deportations, to say that we must either tolerate large numbers of illegal aliens or deport upwards of 12 million people is a false choice. We already deport more than 300,000 people per year. Is it not feasible to increase this number somewhat? Although the numbers are in dispute, the late INS managed to deport upwards of a million illegal aliens in 1954. But in any event, we would not have to find and deport every single illegal immigrant in America. An increase in deportations would send precisely the opposite message as amnesty: That the U.S. is serious about protecting its borders and enforcing its immigration laws. Sending this message would do as much to discourage illegal immigration as amnesty would do to increase it.

National Review editor Rich Lowry made this point in a recent syndicated column on "do-it-yourself deportation." In the two years following 9/11, deportations of Pakistanis, Jordanians, Lebanese and Moroccans doubled and this prompted many to leave on their own. Lowry observed, "The Pakistani Embassy now says that more than 15,000 Pakistani illegals have left the country since Sept. 11." But no one should be surprised to discover that failure to enforce the law yields more immigration violations.

The argument that meaningful immigration control is a politically popular but practically impossible policy is simply an excuse. It is not the majority of Americans who lack the political will to effectively enforce immigration laws. Immigration is an issue where there is sizeable disconnect between elite and general public opinion. If empowered to do so, ordinary Americans would likely be a great deal tougher than a political elite that long ago stopped trying to uphold the law in this area.

Any immigration policy, no matter how liberal or selective, needs to be enforced in part through deportations if it is to be law rather than anarchy. If the Bush administration is reluctant to enforce the law against the present illegal population, why are we to believe that it will do any better enforcing the terms of its temporary work visas?

Indeed, the most radical aspect of Bush's plan is not even its offer of amnesty in all but name. In addition to forcing American workers to compete with illegal aliens, the temporary workers' program apparently forces them into competition with the entire human population of the planet Earth. In announcing the program, Bush said its purpose is to "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs."

On the surface, this is a conservative-sounding proposal that appears to be aimed at making sure that immigrants have jobs, as opposed to being dependent on public welfare payments, and helping businesses find willing workers. But on more careful examination, it commits the federal government to ameliorating poverty everywhere in the world except among the American people.

Although Bush claimed that employers seeking to avail themselves of workers under the program "must first make every reasonable effort to find an American worker for the job at hand," it offers no guarantee that it must offer wages that Americans would be willing to take. The only specific requirement that the administration has thus far made public is that the jobs must pay the minimum wage. A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage makes less than the official poverty line for a family of three. Steve Sailer also noted in an analysis for UPI that the "every reasonable effort to find an American worker" requirement is undermined by Bush's further stipulation that employers should be able to "find workers quickly and simply."

In fact, the only logical reason for the businesses to be able to hire lower-skilled workers under this plan would be to reduce labor costs. As Sailer noted, "rules that would be effective at keeping up the wages of workers would undermine the fundamental goal of this plan." 

Already the plan is being supported by telling the stories of good and decent people, many of them minorities, who overcame great obstacles to get to the U.S. and who stand to improve their lives by residing here. Of course, you can read Michelle Malkin's Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores to learn that not everyone who has benefited from our lax immigration system has been so noble or entered with such good intentions. But there is a great deal of truth in many of these positive stories.

Yet there are perhaps billions of good and decent people all over the world who would see their standard of living increase if they resided in America. We cannot possibly admit all of them without reducing the quality of life for all Americans. You can also write moving stories about the good and decent American workers, many of them minorities, who are struggling and will see their wages reduced and their jobs vanish as a result of this plan and others like it. Isn't the federal government's first responsibility to the working-class whites, blacks and Hispanic Americans who are own citizens and countrymen?

This brings us to the worst part about Bush's plan. It makes the assumption that the universal aspiration to improve one's own living standard and that of their family is identical to the desire to become an American. Many people love their own countries, cultures and customs as much as we Americans love ours. Not all of them identify with our country as their own, even though many of them could make more money living here. But the purpose of our immigration policy should not be primarily to serve as a jobs program for the rest of the world; it should be to create new Americans.

In other words, this plan takes everything that is wrong with our deeply flawed immigration system and makes it worse. It devalues U.S. citizenship and makes the desire to become an American a purely commercial venture. It looks at immigration as something to benefit the few rather than the nation as a whole. It fails to protect borders and adequately deter illegal immigration. It throws assimilation, culture and social cohesion out the window and makes the whole process about money. It equates our obligation to the whole world with our obligation to our fellow Americans. It takes neither Americans nor foreigners seriously.

In other words, it is a monumental mistake. America's immigration disaster is fueled by three forces: Mexico and other countries' desire to use the emigration of their poor as a safety valve so they can escape needed reforms, the welfare state's need for new clients and business' need for cheap labor. Both major parties are acting in accord with these forces and hoping to reap political benefits as a result. Bush in particular labors under the delusion that this will somehow aid his 2004 reelection bid.

It almost certainly won't. I'm a supporter of President Bush. But I must admit, at times like these he makes it very hard.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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