Perhaps 10 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Their fate is among the most polarizing, seemingly intractable issues in American politics.
Proponents of a substantial amnesty often make humanitarian arguments, highlighting the most affecting challenges faced by families “living in the shadows.” That makes it easy to conclude that the debate is best understood as pitting globalists who emphasize the needs of the least well-off against nationalists who insist that the nation must prioritize what’s best for its own citizens.
That fault line certainly runs through the immigration debate. But it can be misleading. Imagine that the welfare of undocumented immigrants counts for nothing at all—that their fate should turn entirely on what makes U.S. citizens best off. Given that constraint, there’s still a strong case that an amnesty is the best policy.
Many on both sides of the debate intuit otherwise because they conceive of undocumented immigrants as laborers who crowd into segregated urban enclaves, follow harvests, or sleep in worker bunks at meatpacking plants. In this telling, they might interact with Americans when making up our motel rooms or bussing our tables, but were they deported, the worst consequences most of “us” might suffer would be higher prices for lettuce or lawn maintenance.
There are wealthy Americans who interact with undocumented immigrants almost entirely as consumers of cheap labor; there are working-class Americans who interact with undocumented immigrants mostly as competitors for jobs; and those incentives do, in fact, fuel self-interested positions on the issue.
But so many undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for so long that literally millions are deeply integrated into American communities. They have friends, classmates, neighbors, and co-workers who are U.S. citizens. Many of them have enjoyed significant economic success too. All of that helps explain polls such as the one Fox News did in 2017, which noted that setting up “a system to legalize undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. receives bipartisan support: most Democrats (95 percent legalize vs. 4 percent deport), Republicans (69–28 percent) and independents (82–13 percent) want legalization to happen.”
In 2015, Pew found that “a solid majority (72%) of Americans—including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans—say undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in this country legally if they meet certain requirements.” Most recently, a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 81 percent “favor allowing immigrants living illegally in the U.S. the chance to become citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.”
Watching Lou Dobbs or listening to Rush Limbaugh, one could be forgiven for concluding that support for a substantial amnesty is a radical position that cosmopolitan elites want to foist on “regular Americans.” In fact, despite being a legislative improbability at the moment, amnesty is very popular in this country. It is opponents of amnesty who are out of step with “regular Americans.”
That majorities of Americans favor a qualified amnesty is strong evidence for the proposition that it is the policy that would make citizens best off. Even those motivated by selfless humanitarian concerns derive value from getting their way in politics. But it is not definitive evidence, in part because it doesn’t tell us much about salience. Maybe lots of people favor amnesty but don’t care about it that much, while a smaller number oppose it with a strong, passionate hatred.
Let’s assume that among the minority of American citizens who oppose granting legal status to most undocumented immigrants, a sizable faction counts the issue as among the most important, or close to it, and opposes any amnesty intensely. Are any of their fellow citizens similarly passionate in the other direction?
There are, in fact, millions of American citizens who very likely value amnesty much more highly than the vast majority of its most passionate opponents value stopping it. Pew Research found in 2008 that “the number of U.S.-born children in mixed-status families (unauthorized immigrant parents and citizen children) has expanded rapidly in recent years, to 4 million in 2008 from 2.7 million in 2003.” That number is almost certainly even higher than 4 million today.
If we’re trying to maximize the happiness of Americans, with no regard for morality, just utility, how should we compare the cost suffered by a restrictionist who doesn’t get his way on amnesty in relation to the benefit derived by another American citizen for whom amnesty means getting to live in the same country as their mother and father without worrying about their deportation?
We’re admittedly crossing into the realm of speculation.
Still, there is a hugely compelling case for the proposition that 4 million Americans who will no longer worry that armed agents of the state will force their moms and dads to move far away, often to an impoverished or dangerous country, will get more utility from an amnesty than millions of those most opposed will lose.
When one starts to treat all Americans with close personal connections to undocumented immigrants as fully equal citizens whose pursuit of happiness is as valuable as that of any others, rather than unconsciously discounting them as possessing less legitimate claims to the nation, the case for legalizing the status of their parents or romantic partners or best friends or employers or employees starts to add up to a whole lot of profound benefits for Americans. And that’s leaving aside public goods that would flow from amnesty, such as hastening assimilation and facilitating better cooperation with local authorities.
Unlike some proponents of amnesty, I do not discount the preferences of the people on the other side of the debate, who object to rewarding unlawful entry or feel deep psychological discomfort with difference and ethnocultural change. Those concerns are legitimate.
I just don’t think it’s fair for their fears and strong predisposition to prize sameness to trump a policy that has majority support and that would very likely enhance the overall happiness and well-being of Americans. That’s especially so because undocumented immigrants who’ve been here for many years likely play a lesser role in the activation of latent predispositions to authoritarianism than does the rapid introduction of refugee populations or the overall changes in ethnocultural makeup that flow from ongoing legal immigration. Legalizing undocumented immigrants doesn’t change who resides here; they’re already here.
A compromise bill that traded a substantial amnesty for a five-year pause in legal immigration; the aggressive, ongoing deportation of newcomers who are convicted of felonies; offering permanent legal status rather than eventual citizenship for older unlawful entrants; and a shift away from chain migration toward a skills-based system might even be a satisfactory bargain both for Americans who are appalled at the treatment of undocumented immigrants and for fearful authoritarians. Loath as I’d be to delay the legal migration of newcomers eager to come here for a better life, I’d likely support such a compromise as an elected official faced with the alternative of extending a decades-long nightmare for the undocumented and the tens of millions of Americans who love them. Or if Donald Trump wants to trade an amnesty for a wall, that’s worth it too.
At the same time, a substantial amnesty should no longer be conceived of as a radical, unpopular proposal that starry-eyed humanitarians must wrest as a concession from the majority. Amnesty is a sensible policy with majoritarian popular support that can be justified on the nationalistic basis of increasing the overall happiness of Americans. Its supporters should push for its stand-alone passage. And opponents of amnesty should be forced to recognize that the longer they delay in agreeing to a bargain that legalizes the status of undocumented immigrants, the weaker their ability to wrest any concessions will be.
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