Immigration reform: Will 'amnesty' produce more illegal immigration?

Supporters of immigration reform that includes of a path to citizenship say that the US is not as attractive a destination as it once was for illegal immigration.

Alan Diaz/AP
Immigration activists hold signs as they protest in front of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami Monday in favor of immigration reform that keeps families intact.

Immigration reform is in the air. A bipartisan Senate group unveiled its proposals on Monday, and the president is scheduled to announce his own package on Tuesday. Both contain provisions for legalizing some 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the US.

But, just as there promises to be no easy consensus on a final deal, there is little agreement about how much the overall reforms will actually stem the flow of illegal immigration across America’s borders. Critics of the proposals say a path to citizenship invites more undocumented migrants, while supporters of the move to legalize many who have lived and worked in the US for years say it is not an open invitation to new illegal immigration.

Critics point to the lessons from the last time Congress tackled his issue, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), a 1986 law that legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants. Both sides acknowledge the law produced substantial fraud, leading to nearly triple the number of new residents created by the law.

"The message will go out,” says Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based national spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), “telling people to bring their rent receipts and pay stubs real or not.” The situation will be a replay of the 1986 law, only on a larger scale, he says. It’s simple math, says Mr. Mehlman, adding, “how can you possibly do background checks on 11 million people? It just won’t happen.”

This expectation sells this target population short, says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “Nobody wants to go where they are not wanted and cannot legally find a job to support them or their family,” he says. “I do not foresee a wave of illegal immigration, because most of these people realize the political situation in the US is very dire when it comes to undocumented immigrants.”

Census data released at the end of 2012 show a slowing of the immigration tide. The number of undocumented immigrants fell to 11.1 million, down from a high of some 12 million in 2007, following more than a decade of increases. A Pew Center analysis of these data finds that “there is net zero migration taking place from Mexico to the United States,” points out Villanova University immigration specialist Catherine Wilson, via e-mail.

The proposed reforms will not encourage illegal immigration in the future for three reasons, says David Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

  • The proposed pathways to legal status will be long and expensive, he says via e-mail, “So any reward for future illegal immigration is distant.”
  • The birth rate in Mexico is in rapid decline and domestic industry's wages are rising, “making the US less attractive,” he says. 
  • The US economy is still not recovered, "so there is not a strong draw for illegal immigration,” he adds. A sustained 1.75 to 2.25 percent growth rate does not even keep our native population employed, he says.

The reality “is that our border is more secure than it has been in years past and as immigration talks heat up, our border agents and patrol will be well aware of the need for greater vigilance,” says immigration lawyer and law professor Michael Wildes, who is managing partner of Wildes & Weinberg in New York City and represented the government in immigration cases in his time as a US Attorney.

The law needs to have enough teeth that it doesn't open the door to greater illegal immigration, he adds. “Whether that means tougher sanctions or steeper fines is up to Congress to decide. But the penalties need to be more stringent because once a pathway to citizenship is defined, there is even less of an excuse for employers to hire undocumented workers and for folks to come here illegally and remain illegal.”

While the numbers tell a story of declining illegal immigration, still a path to citizenship for those now in the country illegally may be a political problem for those who want to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, says David Mark, editor in chief of the website Politix.

“It just seems like common sense to most people that if you make it easier to become legal, that will attract others as well,” he adds. “It is naive to think otherwise.”

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