Immigration reform as a path to conscience, not just citizenship

A bipartisan plan on immigration reform by a group of senators reflects tough terms for forgiving most illegal immigrants. President Obama, too, must adopt only an amnesty that strongly contributes to rule of law.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
Immigrants wait in an office in Langley Park, Md., to apply for a new program that allows them to avoid deportation and get a work permit if they were brought to the United States as children of illegal immigrants.

How much are Americans willing to forgive the 11 million people now living in the United States illegally?

Answer that and you might be able to predict what Congress will do in its latest drive to solve the immigration puzzle.

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on the outlines for immigration reforms, one of which would grant current illegal immigrants a path to legal status under “tough but fair” conditions. And President Obama is pitching his own reforms.

At the heart of this political struggle is the issue of forgiving illegal immigrants for breaking US law, either by illegal border crossings or overstaying visas. Many in Congress now accept that it would be impractical and potentially immoral to deport so many people. And keeping such immigrants estranged in society only keeps them dangerously underground.

Yet any forgiveness often comes with terms attached, such as limited penalties for tax evaders in a government amnesty. What kind of punishment would fit an admitted crime but also deter its recurrence?

The terms of forgiveness on a mass scale are meant not only to help offenders become honest and law-abiding residents but also help restore the consensus that rules are worth following. Enforcement of any laws can only go so far. Society also needs shared values – such as a desire for secure borders – along with having a majority of residents who will feel the pangs of conscience if they break the law.

That’s why the Internal Revenue Service is more lenient to those who volunteer a tax violation than those who are caught. There’s an underlying assumption that people not only want to obey the law and avoid punishment but also want to pay taxes as a matter of societal goodwill.

Many Americans who oppose legal status for illegal immigrants fear an erosion of this consensus about rule of law. A conditional amnesty now might provide an incentive for more people to enter the US in expectation of a future amnesty. Case in point: A 1986 amnesty for an estimated 4 million illegals at the time helped attract many of today’s illegal immigrants.

To reduce this fear, the group of senators laid out a number of legal and security hoops before full legalization is granted. A special commission will monitor progress in securing borders. Employers will need to verify they have hired only legal workers. To earn provisional status, illegal immigrants will need to register, pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check.

Ultimately earning citizenship will take even more steps, such as going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants who have already applied legally.

The purpose of these kinds of stiff requirements should be to improve compliance with immigration law, not undercut it. Finding the right balance must not be a political exercise that caters to pressure groups. It should be based on restoring the nation’s conscience about immigration laws after years of lax enforcement – caused in part by a widespread desire for cheap labor and a willingness to look the other way.

The many examples of tax amnesties by states provide a lesson. Many of those amnesties failed to achieve a long-term increase in tax compliance because they were not coupled with strong and sustained enforcement.

Merely promising better immigration enforcement is not enough. Results must be measurable and for years. And legalization, or even amnesty, must be seen as a tool to restore respect for immigration laws.

If illegal immigrants admit they broke the law and suffer some consequences, then they, too, will be displaying the sort of individual conscience that is the most critical element in enforcement of law – honesty and consideration toward others in society.

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