Few Democrats spoke of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants during campaign season. But just days after the election, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a speech on the steps of the Capitol calling for a blanket amnesty—not for a sympathetic slice of the illegal-immigrant population, but “for all 11 million, or however many undocumented there are here.”
At a time when record numbers of migrants are crossing our southern border illegally (and nearly 1,000, also a record, have died in the attempt), Schumer’s speech will inspire more to try their luck. Aspiring immigrants may not follow the intricacies of congressional negotiations, but they are attentive. Statements like Schumer’s can prompt optimism. When I was a consular officer working at American embassies abroad, I often interviewed migrants who had been ordered removed from the U.S. and accepted plea deals to depart voluntarily in lieu of formal deportation. They often told me that they overstayed their visas because they heard that an amnesty was on the horizon. Senator Schumer is tempting these people—and others—to overstay their visas, in violation of U.S. law, by dangling the reward of citizenship.
It’s clear why Schumer and other Democrats weren’t talking about an amnesty before the election. Border Patrol agents have caught more than 3 million illegal entrants since Joe Biden took office, and more than 1.1 million of them have been released into the United States. Most Americans don’t approve of how Joe Biden has handled the immigration issue. In February, NBC News found that 66 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the issue. A Monmouth poll in September put his disapproval rating on immigration at 63 percent.
How broad of an amnesty will Democrats push for? Efforts to legalize so-called “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally prior to age 21, date to 2001, when Senator Orrin Hatch introduced the DREAM Act. That bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support but ultimately stalled, would have required amnesty recipients to be U.S. residents for at least five years, among other provisions. The narrowest possible amnesty would include only those granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status by President Obama. But past negotiations have considered a much larger group.
Will Democrats try to put every foreign-born person in the country illegally on a path to citizenship? This would mean that law-abiding immigrants here on various types of non-immigrant visas, including H-1Bs, for example, would have to break our laws in order potentially to gain American citizenship. Prior amnesty legislation has provided a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally, but not for those here on temporary visas, so it’s likely that any new legislation would be similar. Researchers have estimated that roughly half of those in the U.S. unlawfully came here on short-term visas and overstayed. That cohort would benefit from a broad amnesty in the same way those who entered the country illegally would.
Advocacy groups are pushing hard for a sweeping amnesty and see the lame-duck session as an opportunity. Politico reports that these groups recently engaged in a “week of action” that included meetings with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republicans John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Mike Lee of Utah, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Schumer cited the need for workers and the declining American birth rate as justifications for a pathway to citizenship. But the claim that a massive amnesty—estimates of the illegal population range from 11 million to 22 million—will be a boon for employers is at odds with the Democratic Party line on unauthorized immigrants. Democrats have long insisted that these people are already working and paying taxes and that our economy couldn’t function without them. Legalizing this huge group would undoubtedly enhance their career prospects. Some would qualify for better jobs, thus creating more vacancies, particularly in such sectors as hospitality, construction, and agriculture, which make heavy use of unauthorized labor. Low-paying jobs might be even harder to fill.
Amnesty would also have little impact on the low birth rate. People here illegally are already having children. A 2018 Pew Research study found that most unauthorized migrants live with family members, and only about 5 percent live alone. And a study published last year by the Center for Immigration Studies concluded that immigration has only a “modest” effect on U.S. fertility and may actually reduce the fertility rate among native-born Americans by lowering wages, driving up housing costs, and straining schools and other public services.
Steven Camarota, a researcher at CIS, also points out that only 29 million of the estimated 48 million immigrants currently in the country are employed. The job-vacancy problem, in other words, exists not because of a shortage of warm bodies, but rather because too many people already here aren’t working. Camarota estimates that 48 million 18- to 64-year-olds are not working or looking for work—nearly 12 million more than in 2000.
Rather than search for policy solutions to draw these people—many relying on various welfare programs—into the labor force, Schumer and other politicians prefer a quick fix that would reward those who broke the law with citizenship. A better solution would be to follow the public will and secure our borders first. Then policymakers could tackle the visa overstay problem, which accounts for roughly half of our total population of unauthorized migrants, by improving the State Department’s screening methods and getting tough on those who abuse their visas.
Only then should a limited amnesty enter the discussion, perhaps for DACA recipients and Dreamers with no criminal records brought here by their parents prior to age 18 and who can prove they’ve lived in the country at least five years. And if Republicans win in 2024, they should move to replace our family-based, chain-migration system with a merit-based program modeled on Canada and Australia, which recruit the best and brightest by offering advantages to people with degrees in in-demand fields. America is a nation of immigrants, but it’s also a nation of laws.
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