Reagan Embraced Amnesty, So Should Bush

Unskilled workers don't have a path to permanent residency

For two decades, immigration bashers have stymied any attempt to regularize the status of illegal aliens in this country by employing one, single argument against them: They are queue-jumpers who illegally crossed the border ahead of those patiently waiting their turn.

But the argument is a fallacy based on a complete misstatement of U.S. immigration policy. There is no such line – a legal pathway to citizenship for unskilled workers. Still, this unfair accusation has transformed “amnesty” into a dirty word.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, who unabashedly adopted the term to push for permanent residency for the 2.7 million illegally in the country in the mid-1980s, every immigration advocate today is disavowing it. President Bush vociferously denies that his plan for comprehensive immigration reform has any amnesty component to it.

But amnesty has a long and honorable history. It was first used in the Civil War when the victorious Unionists employed it to give Confederate forces a pass from prosecution. In the 1980s, it was a popular tool of state governments to encourage tax compliance.

Indeed, the need for amnesty is often a sign of the inefficacy, even injustice, of a law. It suggests that enforcing the law might prove more costly – monetarily and socially – than temporarily suspending it. The biggest reason, however, why reasonable people don’t find anything inherently wrong with amnesty is this: It restores the legal standing of its intended beneficiaries without producing any palpable harm to others.

The queue-jumping argument powerfully suggests that amnesty for illegals means depriving others, more worthy, of entry into the country. Worse, it implies that undocumented workers actually have a choice of taking the legal road just like those waiting in line, but choose to ignore it.

These suggestions are patently false.

Skilled, unskilled

Current immigration law distinguishes between skilled and “unskilled” workers. The process for acquiring permanent residency – or a green card – for skilled workers is long, costly, and fraught with failure. But at least there is one. Not so for unskilled workers.

Skilled workers can try to get the tightly-capped H-1B visa, a temporary work visa that allows them to work in the country while applying for a green-card and eventually citizenship. The closest equivalent to an H-1B visa for non-agricultural unskilled workers – the bulk of the illegal population – is an H-2B visa. These visas have just as tight a cap as H-1Bs, but they have many additional constraints. They are meant only for seasonal jobs and are self-liquidating. This means that once a worker has installed a piece of machinery or assisted a landscape company through its peak season, the visa automatically expires.

Unskilled workers wishing for more permanent employment in, say, a hotel’s house-cleaning department, have virtually no visa options to enter the country legally. Furthermore, unlike skilled workers who can apply for a green card while on an H-1B, H-2B visa holders are effectively barred from doing so. In fact, they risk losing their H-2B – or, worse, not even getting one – if they signal an intention of applying for a green card.

In essence, there is no queue for unskilled workers to stand in. Amnesty for them therefore has zero bearing on the wait time of skilled workers. And without amnesty, there is no way currently for them to become permanent residents.

The so-called problem of illegal immigration is purely the creation of America’s restrictive immigration laws. But the queue-jumping argument has allowed immigration opponents to seize the moral high ground and make the enforcement of these restrictive policies the issue, rather than their reform.

They have also managed to kill Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform proposal that would have created a guest worker program for future unskilled workers while simultaneously ramping up border enforcement. Indeed, the most promising immigration compromise now wending its way through the Senate contains a “trigger” mechanism that would delay the implementation of a guest worker program until: effective sanctions against employers using illegals are put in place; border patrolling is bolstered; and all foreign entrants have a biometric ID. These conditions are so onerous that this “trigger” will likely never go off. This is not immigration reform; this is immigration status-quo forever entrenched into law.

Immigration reformers need to reject this faux compromise. And before they approach the issue again, they need to first recapture the high ground by exposing the myth of the queue – and forthrightly embracing amnesty.