How to Make 11 Million People Much Better Off

The answer: an amnesty, which won't make anyone commensurately worse off
border fence full.jpg
Reuters

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, and Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor whose recommendations to the GOP have included the Iraq invasion and Sarah Palin's turn as a VP candidate, have joined forces to advise that the GOP vote against "comprehensive immigration reform."

As they put it:

It's become clear that you can be pro-immigrant and pro-immigration, and even favor legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here and increases in some categories of legal immigration -- and vigorously oppose this bill.

The bill's first fatal deficiency is that it doesn't solve the illegal-immigration problem. The enforcement provisions are riddled with exceptions, loopholes, and waivers. Every indication is that they are for show and will be disregarded, just as prior notional requirements to build a fence or an entry/exit visa system have been -- and just as President Obama has recently announced he's ignoring aspects of Obamacare that are inconvenient to enforce on schedule. Why won't he waive a requirement for the use of E-Verify just as he's unilaterally delayed the employer mandate? The fact that the legalization of illegal immigrants comes first makes it all the more likely that enforcement provisions will be ignored the same way they were after passage of the 1986 amnesty.

Years ago, when I fixated more on abstractions, this sort of argument would have been persuasive to me. "Marco Rubio says he doesn't want to have to come back ten years from now and deal with the same illegal-immigration problem," the op-ed continues. "But that's exactly what the CBO says will happen under his own bill." Yeah, why pass a law when it won't even fix "the problem"?!

But wait a minute.

If the immigration bill passes, and 11 million illegal immigrants can reside here legally, fully participating in their communities and our society, rather than worrying every time they see a police officer about being ripped from their families and the lives they've built, the United States of 10 years hence won't be dealing with "the same illegal immigration problem." For those 11 million people, the problem will have been solved. Their status will be legal. Many of them will wake up every morning and literally thank God that the opportunities open to them have broadened and the likelihood of a devastating deportation befalling their family has drastically decreased.

I'd like to see their lives radically improved regardless of the effect on future illegal immigration, because I place an extremely high value on freeing millions of people to live their lives without fearing that they'll one day find themselves forcibly removed from the place they've made their home. That's even more important to me than slightly elevating the wages of people who were lucky enough to be born in the United States, but who didn't graduate from high school and compete with new immigrants for jobs. While I don't want to minimize the difficulty of their economic competition, I don't think consigning different, poorer people to even more difficult circumstances is fair, given that so many American are here because our immigrant ancestors were permitted to enter the country legally to compete with the native born Americans of their era.

What if the price of helping 11 million people to better flourish, more fully contribute, and escape limbo is the possibility that, a decade hence, it may have to be done again for different people?

I'd prefer a system that increased legal immigration and better prevented illegal immigration. But I could live with another amnesty in 10 years. The one in 1986 did a lot of good and not much harm.

For its beneficiaries, amnesty is everything -- a defining event in their lives, and the lives of their children, that will forever improve their lot. Its opponents have many objections, some more reasonable than others. But if amnesty passes, it won't hurt opponents nearly so much as it helps beneficiaries. Most opponents won't even be conscious of being any worse off at all.

Some will be better off. 

If I could write my own immigration bill, it would be different in all sorts of ways from the one President Obama wants to sign. In some ways, my bill would make Lowry and Kristol much happier, and there isn't anything wrong with their lobbying for changes in the legislation, or a different bill that reflects their notions of prudent reform. But they are wrong when they write that "there's no rush to act on immigration." If you're cognizant of the ways that not acting makes the lives of the people here illegally much worse than they need to be, urgency is in fact rational.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Politics

Just In