One Minute Debate

Should America's illegal immigrants be offered legal status?

There are 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US. With midterm elections around the corner, the immigration reform debate is heating up – fueled by everything from Arizona's controversial immigration law to the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship clause.

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    Esther Pereyra Rubalcaba (left) kisses her daughter Patricia through the wall separating the US and Mexican territories in Tijuana, Mexico. The wall, which was built in 1989 to stop illegal immigration into the US, goes from the ocean 15 miles into the Otayo mountains. It has become a meeting point for immigrants who are now living in the US and their relatives remaining in Mexico.
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No: Amnesty is wrong and costly

Immigration laws exist for a very good reason: Excessive levels of immigration can have a profoundly negative impact on the receiving society. There is no aspect of American life – jobs, wages, education, health care, taxes, environment, to name a few – that is not affected by immigration.

The cost of amnesty is too high. Americans already bear a $113 billion annual burden from their government’s refusal to enforce immigration laws. Millions of jobs – that Americans want and need – are filled by illegal immigrants willing to work for low wages. Amnesty would make the largely poorly educated and poorly skilled illegal immigrant population eligible for costly benefits and services, increasing the burden for American taxpayers, and paving the way for family members to follow them here.

Amnesty “solves” the illegal immigration problem in much the same way that raising the speed limit to 150 miles per hour “solves” speeding. The illegality is removed, but the detrimental consequences to everyone else grow worse. Rewarding lawbreaking is wrong and only generates more of it. We granted amnesty to some 3 million people in 1986 and now have at least 11 million illegal immigrants in United States.

Instead, illegal immigration should be addressed by systematically removing the incentives that draw people to this country illegally. Illegal immigration actually declined in recent years, as people reacted rationally to the recession and belated efforts by the Bush administration to enforce immigration laws.

Resuming work-site enforcement, eliminating nonessential government benefits and services, enhancing cooperation between local and federal authorities, and other measures provide an alternative to mass amnesty – and would better serve the interests of the American people.

Dan Stein, president, Federation for American Immigration Reform

Yes: legalization is the only realistic solution

Americans are justifiably frustrated that 11 million unauthorized immigrants now live in the United States. Yet the majority of them would have preferred to come legally; there was simply no way under current immigration laws. Moreover, most of them are working, paying taxes, and buying US goods. Other than lacking legal status, most are law-abiding residents. Many are married to US citizens, with children who are citizens.

The problem is that they are often willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions, which creates unfair competition for US workers and gives unscrupulous employers an unfair advantage over law-abiding employers.

We could continue on the same path we have pursued for two decades: spending more money on enforcement and passing increasingly harsh laws in an attempt to drive unauthorized immigrants out. But despite the billions of dollars we’ve spent building walls, hiring border patrol agents, and detaining and deporting hundreds of thousands, the unauthorized population hasn’t decreased significantly.

Instead of “enforcement only,” we should offer unauthorized immigrants a chance to come forward, register, pay a fine, learn English, pass background checks, and legalize their status.

Legalizing them would inject a new level of certainty into their lives, allowing them to invest more in themselves and their communities. Legalized immigrants will earn more, pay more taxes, consume more, buy houses, start businesses, and contribute more to the economy.

Americans want real solutions to the problem of unauthorized immigration that are practical and fair. Enforcement alone has failed. We need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization program.

Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst, American Immigration Council’s Immigration Policy Center

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