ALTHOUGH amnesty was first proposed by President Carter years ago, it has not been able to capture the hearts and minds of Congress or the populace. The reason is quite simple:
Blanket amnesty is contrary to the interests of the United States. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Congress was unable to pass the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, with its provision of amnesty for illegal aliens.
The number of illegal aliens living in the United States is not known with any degree of certainty. For obvious reasons it is a population that prefers anonymity. Statisticians at the United States Census Bureau have estimated that there are between 3.5 million and 6 million illegal aliens in the US, and nearly half are Mexican nationals. The scanty data indicate that illegal aliens are predominantly low-skilled workers engaged in low-skilled jobs.
Granting amnesty would further increase the relative number of low-skilled workers in the US labor market in three ways.
To begin with, amnesty encourages the prospect of repeated amnesties. As a result, it would encourage additional illegal immigration of low-skilled workers; indeed, illegal immigration increased sharply after President Carter first proposed amnesty in 1977. Immigration tends to increase whenever the prospects for passage of an amnesty bill become more favorable.
Second, perhaps several million family members of the illegal aliens given amnesty might seek to migrate to the US. And in a fairly short time they could do so legally. Under current US immigration law, kinship with a US citizen or resident alien is the primary criterion for allocating immigration visas. Additional low-skilled wives, youths, and parents would enter the lower strata of the labor market.
A third consideration is that with amnesty, many of the adult male illegal aliens now in the United States would be less inclined to return to their home countries during the seasonal or cyclical slack periods in economic activity. Rather, they would remain in the United States with their recently arrived families and would be eligible for unemployment insurance and a full range of ''income transfer'' (welfare) programs.
In an earlier era an open-door immigration policy seemed reasonable when public welfare programs to provide assistance to the needy did not exist and when the extent of poverty was not considered to be a concern of the government. At that time the immigration of a large group of low-skilled workers was generally perceived to be in the unambiguous economic interest of the United States. This is, however, no longer the case.
The increase in the size of the low-skilled labor force as a result of amnesty would unquestionably depress the wages and employment opportunities of low-skilled American workers - both native born and legal immigrants.
Lower earnings and greater unemployment for low-skilled American workers mean that welfare benefits for the current working-poor recipients would have to increase and more families would be eligible for such benefits.
These developments have strong implications for the likely success of policies to reduce welfare dependency and reduce the rate of growth of these budget items.
In addition, increased competition for low-skilled jobs, low-cost housing, and welfare funds would heighten social tensions among low-income groups (particularly blacks and Hispanics), and between the low-income welfare recipients and the middle-income taxpayers.
The usual response to increased low-skilled immigration is that more generous welfare payments will compensate low-skilled American workers. Legal immigrants, however, including illegal aliens given amnesty, cannot be barred from participating in the welfare system. Thus the new immigrants themselves may also become substantial recipients of these programs. Then, as a consequence of the welfare benefits to the low-skilled, ex-illegal aliens, the income of the native population (the net of the tax-transfer system) could be lower than if there had been no immigration!
Granting amnesty is also discriminatory. It discriminates against other equally deserving people who wish to migrate to the US but do not do so illegally because they view it as either distasteful or too costly. It is relatively inexpensive to sneak across the US-Mexican border at night, and if apprehended and deported in the first attempt, to try again a few nights later. On the other hand, illegal entry is more difficult and deportation is more costly for people in Asia and Africa. Public policy should not reward those who begin their lives in the United States by violating its laws!
Barry R. Chiswick is a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution and research professor in the Department of Economics and the Survey Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.