The Question of Amnesty: should they stay or go?

by Savannah Seiler

I am a native-born citizen of the United States and have never had to personally go through the immigration system. However, I have seen someone I love spend years of his life waiting to earn citizenship by joining the Army and being on active duty for about five years. It has been a frustrating process, with background checks and inefficient government processes that caused his ship date to be delayed by about a year and a half.

The delay forced him to wait in limbo, unable to work. Once the background check is completed, he will sacrifice his time, energy, and safety to ensure his citizenship. This is actually the easier of the options for an Indian immigrant like him. The wait time for a more common immigration process is about 14 years for Indians. During that time, a person needs a visa in order to ensure they are not deported. If deported, the immigrant must wait ten years before they are allowed to return to the United States in any capacity.

One does not have to be directly involved with the immigration process to feel its effects.

Immigrants that come into this country will be our neighbors, coworkers and friends; any influx of a particular culture will impact our nation. The high percentage of Mexican immigration in relation to immigration from other countries, both legal and illegal, are, undeniably impacting the country. In 2014, a little less than half of immigrants identified as originating from Hispanic or Latino origins (Migration Policy Institute). Border states have towns filled with Mexican culture, including festivals, food, and Spanish. As of 2014, over eleven million undocumented immigrants are in the United States (Krogstad, Passel, and Cohn).

Immigration affects our nation socially, economically and culturally; therefore, it is salient even if it does not seem directly relevant to one’s life. President Obama’s recent grant of amnesty to a portion of illegal immigrants has brought the issue to the forefront of the political sphere. Additionally, President-elect Trump’s proposals of mass deportations have reignited a desire to grant amnesty and protect more people from being forced out of the country.

The topic of immigration is a sensitive topic, since it can negatively impact so many lives. It is important to discern between emotion and other forms of argument, because emotions can sometimes be used to overshadow logical appeals. Emotion is a powerful and useful tool for decision-making, but other arguments and facts should be considered. With these recent political responses to illegal immigration, the central question is whether to grant amnesty to the millions of immigrants that currently reside illegally in the United States.

However, granting amnesty would be fiscally irresponsible and would negatively impact the country’s quality and financial stability.

It is important to clarify that amnesty in this article regards a wide-sweeping amnesty plan that allows a large number of undocumented immigrants to pursue citizenship without the fear of deportation. More minor forms of amnesty for specific groups of people, like rape victims of war, require a different, more specific form of cost and benefit analysis.

Furthermore, future research that will be referenced analyzes specifically an 11 million immigrant amnesty, but there are always variations. For example, not every immigrant takes advantage of amnesty and pursues citizenship. Additionally, the rates of illegal immigration could rise and fall due to outside factors. This paper contains analyzes the arguments against and for the theory of mass amnesty (impacting a majority of illegal immigrants); however, specific economic research analyzes a specific amnesty of 11 million illegal immigrants.

This election cycle, of course, is not the first time immigration has been a salient issue. In 1986, Reagan, who many Republicans consider to be the standard for conservatism, granted amnesty to all immigrants who entered illegally before 1982. Amnesty takes on many forms, but the definition of amnesty remains the same. It is a pardon for committing an offense. In Reagan’s case, he forgave people who crossed the border illegally before 1982 so that they would not be prosecuted or deported for breaking the law of entry without inspection.This gave about three million immigrants the right to stay in the United States. However, this was within a bill that increased Mexican border security and made the penalties employers received from hiring illegal immigrants harsher (National Public Radio). Reagan wanted unity between Mexico and the United States. At first glance, this seems to be an effective solution to a difficult dilemma. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The illegal immigrant population rose from five to eleven million immigrants. If amnesty is granted again, the immigrants who illegally cross the border would most likely rise again, which will lead the United States back to the original problems it has with illegal immigration and may even further exacerbate them (Epstein).

Of course, amnesty is not the sole cause for an increase in illegal immigration.

Dangerous situations or limited essential resources in other countries could force others to find safety in the United States. An increase in opportunities in the United States could also influence more immigrants to seek opportunities in the country. However, amnesty creates incentives for more people to immigrate illegally. If a person is able to get away with a crime, then forgiven for their crime by a public official, then he or she is more likely to do it again or others are more likely to commit the crime. For example, people speed more in areas where they believe there are less police officers and speed less if they believe there are more officers or if it is the end of the month, when ticket quotas are due, and are less likely to be forgiven for a driving infraction. This thought-process is human nature.

President Obama recently granted a form of amnesty to about four million illegal immigrants, if they chose to accept it. He did so by passing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA gives a portion of those who have come into the United States illegally the opportunity to apply for work authorization and possibly be delayed from deportation by two years and possible to renew deferred action in the future. In this case, amnesty was granted to illegal immigrants younger than 31 and were undocumented immigrants at the time DACA was enacted, arrived to the United States before turning 16, have lived in the country continuously since 2007, had some education or were a military veteran and had not committed significant crimes (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). Since this act did not apply to as many people and granted work permits rather than citizenship, it likely to not have a similar impact to Reagan’s bill. If the impact is not as adverse as the impact of Reagan’s bill, the public perception of amnesty may change, which will most likely affect the way publicly-elected officials vote on the subject. Furthermore, the effects of this amnesty will be more difficult to isolate since it affected fewer people and is more likely to be overshadowed by other factors, like political unrest in other countries or national debt.

The majority of arguments in the amnesty debate focus on two rhetorical approaches: emotion and economics.

Both are valid approaches for determining the best solution. Economics is a rational way to predict the impact an eleven million or more population increase will have on the nation. This population increase will come from some of the undocumented immigrants pursuing citizenship, the rest staying and more people entering the country illegally, as it happened after Reagan’s bill. Both illegal and legal immigrants will impact this country economically, but in different ways, mostly in regards to the taxes they pay and the amount of federal funding they can receive.

Emotion prevents decision-makers from forgetting that illegal immigrants are not numbers, or skittles, but human beings who will most definitely be greatly impacted by the decision that is made. Families will be ripped apart. People will be uprooted from the placed they have called home for years. According to the Pew Research Center, the median length of time for an adult illegal immigrant to reside in the United States is about 13.6 years. Some may even die if sent back to their homeland.

Another argument focuses more on the issues of the countries immigrants leave. Many immigrants flee from poverty and dangerous situations to our country. If we do not grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, they are vulnerable to deportation and could be forced to return to poverty and violence. The response to this argument is that the United States cannot be the the solution to every tragedy in the world. If someone is deported to their country and harmed, it is due to problems in their own country.

The best solution, rather than put a bandaid on the situation and provide a haven to every endangered human, is to ensure our strength.

If the country is strong, then it can continue to be the police power of the world and help other countries be successful so that its citizens can be successful and safe in their own country. Some proponents of granting amnesty proclaim that we are all immigrants, unless someone is Native American. President Obama, while addressing his executive actions regarding immigration, claimed that, “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too” (Somanader). The first immigrants to the country decimated the Native American population.

Some came to flee negative situations in their home countries, and the rest were forced to come here as slaves. Some argue that immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, have no place preventing more immigrants from coming in. However, past immigration does not justify granting amnesty to millions of people who have inhabited the United States illegally for years. The purpose of history is to learn from past mistakes and adapt, but to not let it force a decision-making process in the present. Guilt for actions we had no part in, as in our forefathers means of immigration, should not determine whether amnesty in any form should be granted.

The major misconception used in response to the amnesty argument is that illegal immigrants are the reason for high crime rates.

The only truth to this is that if 11 million people entered a country, crime will increase due to the population increase. However, illegal immigrants commit crimes at much lower rates than United States citizens. A Chicago study conducted from 1995 to 2002 found that first-generation immigrants “were 45 percent less likely to commit violent crimes than were third-generation Americans (children of native-born parents), adjusting for family and neighborhood background” (Rumbaut).

People without documentation face higher consequences than jail time if a police officer discovers their status. As mentioned before, they would have to say goodbye to their homes and loved ones. If we look at incarceration rates for people not born in America, we can see that all ethnicities that were not born in the United States have lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Hispanics are incarcerated anywhere from .2% to 2.2% depending on which country they have originated from (Open Borders). This includes the proven bias that many police officers, judges and juries, have against minorities, which increases their incarceration rates over native-born Americans who are more likely to be white. A more valid, emotionally-based argument against amnesty is the outrage legal immigrants feel after waiting for years and sacrificing so much of their time and then watching others get the same opportunity to apply for citizenship even though they broke the law. Granting amnesty forgives the crime of illegal immigration and allows those immigrants to apply for citizenship without punishment, encouraging more to enter illegally while discouraging attempts to go through the proper channels.

The length of time it takes to go through the immigration process also discourages legal entry. Some nationalities must wait upwards of a decade to become a citizen. It would be devastating to any new citizens for others to be pardoned and able to gain citizenship when they worked so hard.

The economic reality of allowing eleven million illegal immigrants to reside in this country legally and gifting them the benefits of citizenship is the strongest argument against granting amnesty.

Unfortunately, we live in a welfare state with over eighty programs that cost about $900 billion each year and is provided to about 100 million Americans (Heritage). They also, outside of welfare, receive the benefits of “Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation,” the opportunity to pursue a public school education, which costs over $12,000 a student each year, and public services like infrastructure and police and fire departments (Heritage). Of course all of these benefits are not available to every new citizen. They must meet certain requirements, just like current citizens.

The large size of our government means that the cost of each additional immigrant costs much more and becomes a greater economic burden on our country. Of course, once citizens, the former illegal immigrants would pay taxes; however, they would consume the aforementioned government benefits. Not every new citizen would use these benefits, but if they consume them at a similar rate as current citizens, it would create a financial deficit. Additionally, legal immigrants have larger fiscal deficits than native-born citizens because they have lower education levels and higher levels of welfare use. Twenty percent of legal immigrant households “are headed by individuals without a high school diploma, compared to 10 percent among non-immigrant households” (Heritage). Legal immigrants consume a third more welfare than native-born citizens, meaning they receive the largest consumer of government benefits (Heritage).

There is a popular myth, mainly from unskilled or blue collar laborers, that immigrants, legal and illegal, are coming to America and taking their jobs. This is simply untrue. According to the Pew Research Center, over the course of four years, as the population of people born outside of the United States increased, the employment of people born inside the United States increased. This statistic disproves the notion that immigrants take jobs from native-born citizens, because if they did, then unemployment would increase rather than decrease. This fact was proven in 27 states. In the other half of the nation, employment decreased. However, those states only had one third of the foreign-born population, meaning there was a smaller concentration of immigrants. So it could be possible that they needed more immigrants or there were other factors impacting that state: correlation does not imply causation.

According to the Pew Research Center, 8 million out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants have joined the workforce in America. They mainly take unskilled labor jobs, which can raise our production levels. Capital and labor are what determines the quantity of a good produced. In places like Mexico and India, there is much more labor than capital, while in places like the United States, there is more capital. This allows companies like McDonald’s to have technology replace cashiers when labor costs get too high. In other places, labor costs do not get too high since there are so many people willing to take another person’s job if they ask for more money. With an increase in the population of the work force, and possible increase in capital, since more people typically means more innovation, then the output could rise drastically. In fact, a study conducted on behalf of the Cato Institute by Peter Dixon and Maureen Rimmer found that an estimated “29 percent increase in low-skilled immigration would boost the total income of U.S. households by as much as $180 billion a year” (Griswold).

The costs of sustaining eleven million more citizens far outweigh the revenue made from granting amnesty.

A study done by the Heritage Foundation on behalf of Congress broke down the economic implications of granting amnesty to the eleven million illegal immigrants who currently reside in America. The study found that throughout their entire lives, these immigrants would be on the receiving end of $9.4 trillion in government benefits and services. They would also, over the course of a lifetime, pay only $3.1 trillion in taxes. This leads to a fiscal deficit, of about $6.3 trillion. There are currently around eighty government welfare programs, including Obamacare and Social Security that contribute to these high dollar amounts spent on the new citizens (Rector and Richwine). Again, this makes the money that would be spent to increase deportations and tighten border security seem like pennies. The United States is already about $20 trillion in debt, any additional debt is unacceptable at this point; our nation cannot help anyone if it is bankrupt.

Some argue that the building a wall and deporting all, or most, illegal immigrants is fiscally irresponsible. They would be somewhat correct, but the argument is irrelevant. Economists have determined that a mass deportation of around eleven million immigrants in a two year time frame, as Trump has suggested, would cost about $100 to $300 billion. Furthermore, the cost of building a wall would cost around $25 billion dollars (Salisbury). This argument is irrelevant because mass deportations and a wall on the border are not the only responses to illegal immigration.

There is a healthy middle between allowing everyone to stay and forcing everyone to leave.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division has the capacity to deport around 400,000 illegal immigrants every year (Salisbury). Doubling the capacity of Homeland Security to find and deport illegal immigrants and prevent more people from illegally entering the United States would deter additional illegal immigration while also deporting twice as many people. Additionally, the price tags of the wall and mass deportations are far less than the costs America would incur if undocumented immigrants were granted amnesty. It would be hypocritical to argue for granting a mass amnesty program, yet condemn Trump’s plans for being fiscally irresponsible.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, 1,016,518 foreign nationals became lawful permanent residents and given green-cards in 2014. This number increased by three percent from the previous year (Rector and Richwine). This increase in population every year in addition to the numbers of illegal immigrants flowing into our country is going to severely tax our nation’s resources. Our nation has a seemingly never-ending amount of natural resources, which has caused its inhabitants to be careless and wasteful, thereby decreasing the resources at an alarming rate. The rise of the American population due to immigration has further increased the consumption of natural resources (Federation for American Immigration Reform). Our infrastructure has a grade of D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers and is estimated to need $3.6 trillion worth of spending by the year of 2020.

Adding additional people will further strain our infrastructure, and other resources which will make the United States a lower quality country, which is detrimental to citizens and illegal immigrants alike.

Unfortunately, the United States consumes an inordinate amount of fossil fuels for its size. Although the country only contains five percent of the world’s population, it uses “nearly 25 % of the coal, 26% of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas” (Worldwatch Institute). According to National Geographic’s Greendex, Americans are among the most likely to purchase disposable goods rather than reusable goods. They are also most likely to not view environmentally friendly products as worth the extra cost. The United States is ranked last overall on the Greendex report. The United States is clearly not in a condition to sustain additional citizens or more illegal immigrants, which would most likely increase if amnesty were granted on large scale.

The best solution would seemingly be to fix the nature of the United States government in order to make amnesty unnecessary. The best possible scenario with the reality we have is to expedite the immigration process and decrease the amount the government spends per a citizen. The government would increase the efficiency of processing people, which will encourage people to go through legal channels, increase border patrol as much as possible and to decrease spending on welfare. This will control the rates of immigration so that our nation is not negatively impacted.

We need to remain the country foreign nationals want to immigrate to. In order to remain that country, we need to be financially strong.

In regards to the issue of the safety of immigrants if they are deported, our country can try to get those who need to be here and find safety into the country first. Additionally, the country will simultaneously encourage those who can wait to try to succeed in or improve their own country until the United States has the capacity to sustain them as an additional citizen. The country can also increase the amount of citizens it can sustain by decreasing the amount it spends per citizen. This plan will most likely ensure the success and safety of all citizens and illegal immigrants alike.

Savannah Seiler is a junior Political Science and Economics double major at Trinity University. She is the President of the Pre-Law Society at Trinity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The graphic above was created by Andrea Acevedo.

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