What does amnesty accomplish?

The last big immigration amnesty in the United States took place in 1986. As the US considers immigration reform, the Monitor examines the costs and benefits of that decision -- and catches up with some of the almost 3 million people it affected.

Eric Thayer/Reuters/File
A worker labors in lettuce fields near San Luis, Arizona.

“Amnesty” has the same root as “amnesia.” The idea is to forget if not forgive. Amnesty moves people outside the law inside it – while usually staying silent on whether it was right or wrong to break the law in the first place. The first recorded amnesty, granted by the Greek general Thrasybulus in the 5th century BC, aimed to erase the memory of Spartan rule and allow Athenian democracy to flourish.

Amnesties are more about practicality than principle. They are used to get beyond a divisive issue, recognizing that onetime foes must live together in the future – the Great Rebellion in Britain in 1660, the American Civil War. Vietnam draft resisters were granted amnesty by President Carter in 1977. The war was over. The draft had been abolished. It was time to move on.

Erin Siegal’s Monitor cover story examines President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty of illegal immigrants, looking for successes, failures, and precedents as Congress considers a new amnesty. The law provided a pathway to citizenship for nearly 3 million people over the past quarter century. In Erin’s report, you’ll meet some of them.

The amnesty of ’86 came and went without a change in the conditions that contributed to illegal immigration. The 2,000-mile-long US-Mexican border remained easily breached; economic opportunity in the United States remained much better than in Latin America; and US employers faced few repercussions if they hired undocumented workers. 

Since the turn of the century, however, border security has tightened significantly and employment verification has increased through programs like E-Verify. More important, economic doldrums in the US and brightening prospects in Latin America have changed the psychology of border crossers (see Sara Miller Llana’s April 9, 2012, Monitor Weekly cover story). Illegal entries today are one-fifth what they were in 2000. 

Still, 11 million people are living and working in the US in violation of the law. Their ability to move beyond entry-level jobs is constrained. They are unable to tap into programs they help fund, including Social Security and Medicare. They are part of the economy, part of society, but confined to the shadows. 

By every measurement – economic activity, wage competition with American workers, criminal-justice cases, cost to taxpayers – the impact of illegal immigration is neutral or close to neutral. It has benefits and costs. Nor is there conclusive evidence that illegal immigrants are more likely than the general population to commit crimes, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports a crackdown on illegal immigration. Studies by researchers at Northeastern University and the University of California, Irvine, in fact, indicate that border communities in the US actually have lower crime rates than the national average.

So the debate about amnesty usually comes down to the principle of the thing. Those entering the country illegally broke the law and jumped the line. Should that be rewarded? Does amnesty create the expectation of future amnesty? Economic trends can always reverse, after all, and motivated people can always defeat borders, especially if they know the country whose laws they broke will eventually look the other way.

Granting amnesty is not an easy decision. It may not be a permanent fix. It hinges on whether a nation of immigrants should forget how 11 million new immigrants entered the country – in the interests of letting them, and the nation, move on.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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