Confronting the Amnesty Scare

The anti-immigrant right has been mounting a scare campaign since late January about the supposed dangers of legalizing the country’s estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants.

— “When you legalize those who are in the country illegally,” Rep. Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, announced on January 28, “it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration.”

— A February 4 “exclusive” on the far-right WND website described a “highly embarrassing and potentially politically explosive” report that was “suppressed” by immigration authorities back in 2000.  The report shows that the legalization program in 1986 “failed . . . because it offered an incentive for more illegal aliens to come and take advantage of a future amnesty,” according to the article, which quickly circulated through the internet.

— “Top officials” in the Obama administration “are lobbying for a massive nationwide amnesty that would foster a tsunami of increased illegal immigration for generations to come,” ultra-conservative columnist Michelle Malkin warned on February 27.

The amnesty scare isn’t limited to the far right.  The 1986 legalization “was followed by an even larger unauthorized influx,” New York Times immigration reporter Julia Preston wrote in a front-page March 16 article which also warned about a “new wave of illegal [border] crossings that might be spurred by a legalization program.”  Politicians cite these claims as reasons why any new legalization needs to be linked to stepped-up enforcement measures like more drones at the border, E-Verify at the workplace, and a biometric national ID card.  And instead of confronting the scare campaign, many advocates for legalizing immigrants tiptoe around the issue, carefully avoiding the word “amnesty.”

The Missing Tsunami

In reality, there’s no evidence that the 1986 legalization caused any long-term increase in unauthorized immigration.

The reasoning behind the amnesty scare starts from the patriotic assumption that everyone must want to be a U.S. citizen, or at least a legal resident.  The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) gave legal residence to about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants.  Since then the undocumented population has more than tripled.  So amnesties must “beget more illegal immigration,” as the Times wrote in a February 2000 editorial.  “Amnesties signal foreign workers that American citizenship can be had by sneaking across the border, or staying beyond the term of one’s visa, and hiding out until Congress passes the next amnesty.”

But there are problems with this scenario.  To accept it we have to believe that millions of people would leave their homes, pay a coyote thousands of dollars, and then risk their lives in the often-fatal crossing of the Southwest’s deserts on the chance of someday getting a green card.  We’d also have to ignore all the other incentives immigrants have had to come to the United States in the quarter century since IRCA was passed: the devastating wars in Central America, episodes of violent repression in countries like Haiti, and, above all, the economic dislocations in the global South following the debt crisis of the early 1980s and the implementation of “free trade” pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

And we would have to ignore the fact that the 1986 legalization wasn’t the first amnesty.  Starting in 1929 immigrants were able to get legal status from a sort of periodic amnesty known as “registry” after they had lived here a number of years, and yet there was no sign that this caused any “tsunamis” of illegal immigration.  The last registry date was 1972: the really distinctive feature of the period since 1986 is the absence of any amnesty.

But the biggest problem with the amnesty scare is that the recent dramatic increase in the undocumented population started well before IRCA was passed.  U.S. census data indicates that the number of out-of-status immigrants almost doubled from about 1.12 million in 1974 to 2.09 million in 1983.  The undocumented population continued to grow at the same rate after 1986, roughly doubling every decade until 2007, when the current economic crisis began cutting the number of jobs available in the United States.

Demographic studies have in fact found that the only effect of the 1986 amnesty was to produce an increase in unauthorized immigration in the late 1980s as family members came to join newly amnestied immigrants in the hope of getting legal status through family reunification.  As demographers Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny summed up their findings in the journal of the conservative Cato Institute in 2012, “giving an almost universal amnesty to unauthorized immigrants did not alter long-run patterns of illegal immigration, which some believed it would,” although because of family reunification it “clearly led to large increases in legal immigration.”

The WMD in the Immigration Debate

The promoters of the amnesty scare don’t have much to say when confronted with these facts.  Michelle Malkin and Kim Smith Hicks, Lamar Smith’s deputy chief of staff for communications, were each sent three emails asking for evidence that the 1986 amnesty encouraged major unauthorized immigration.  The emails went unanswered.

Rep. Smith did make an effort once to provide some proof.  Back in October 2000 he released a draft report he said he’d subpoenaed from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, the government agency in charge of immigration until its functions were taken over in 2003 by three new agencies in the Department of Homeland Security).  Implying that the report was being kept secret for political reasons, Smith told a press conference that it showed “[i]llegal immigration skyrocketed after the massive 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens.”  The report was then supposed to be posted to Smith’s website.

But the actual report, “Annual Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States and Components of Change: 1987 to 1997,” says nothing about unauthorized immigration skyrocketing.  Its conclusion is that “estimated unauthorized immigration increased considerably in 1988 and 1989, then dropped significantly in the early 1990s.  What is uncertain is the extent to which these fluctuations were due to the passage of IRCA . . . or were the resumption of unauthorized immigration to pre-IRCA levels.”  As for why the INS didn’t release the report, the author, respected former INS demographer Robert Warren, wrote in a March 2013 email: “The reason INS decided to delay (not withhold) the release of the paper was a technical statistical issue regarding the accuracy of the data that we used to construct the estimates.”

As of late 2008 the report couldn’t be found on Rep. Smith’s website.  Email inquiries about the missing report weren’t answered.

And what about the “exclusive” article reposted on so many right-wing websites this February?  The “highly embarrassing” report turns out to be the draft report that Smith subpoenaed in 2000.  The article’s author, Albert Thompson, at least responds to emails, but he seems unable to explain in what way the report was “suppressed” or why it was more “politically explosive” now than it was 13 years ago.

* * *

We recently marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The amnesty scare is very much like the weapons of mass destruction scare that was used as a pretext for that war, and it’s brought to us by many of the same people.  In this case the pretext is for expanded enforcement measures against undocumented immigrants — measures that will help maintain a vulnerable, easily exploited immigrant workforce, either by driving immigrants further underground or by channeling them into guest worker programs.

Polls show that popular support is growing for legalizing the undocumented, and the Times is now starting to question its claim that legalizations “beget more illegal immigration.”  This is a good time to confront the amnesty alarmists and say openly: we need a broad legalization program, and there’s no reason for us to compromise to get it.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.  He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.

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