The Wrong Remedy for Illegal Immigration

By Sen. John P. East (R-NC)
Volume 22, Number 1 (Fall 2011)
Issue theme: "America transformed"

Mass amnesty for untold millions of illegal aliens will hurt our workers and taxpayers, undercut enforcement of our laws, and contribute to future illegal immigration. Congress should not reward foreigners who have intentionally violated the criminal law of this nation.

The legalization provisions of the proposed “immigration reform” bill would give legal permanent resident status to illegal aliens who have continuously resided here since January 1, 1977, and legal temporary resident status to those here since January 1, 1980. Both groups of legalized aliens will be free to take any job they can obtain. These legalized aliens will be free to use our schools to acquire skills to better compete with American workers for good jobs. This bill provides for no government approval of employment of these aliens nor certification that their employment would not displace or adversely affect wages and working conditions of Americans. After five years as permanent residents, they could apply for United States citizenship.

No matter how much sympathy we feel for the impoverished billions of the world’s underdeveloped nations, our first duty is to protect American citizens and the future of our nation. With millions of Americans unemployed, we have no right to give jobs to foreign nationals who are illegally present in our country.

The general public recognized that amnesty will be granted at the expense of American workers. Paul S. Egan, representing the American Legion, testifying before the Immigration and Refugee Policy Subcommittee on October 29, 1982, said:

To say to Americans…that those illegally in the country and holding jobs desired by Americans will be allowed to retain them while American workers must fend for themselves is patently unfair.

Professor C. Barry McCarty, in testimony submitted to the subcommittee on behalf of Conservatives for Immigration Reform, stated that the amnesty provision “… seems more concerned with protecting the alien labor supply of American employers and the employment opportunities of amnestied aliens than with opening jobs for U.S. workers.”

The testimony presented to the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee establishes that many illegal aliens are holding good jobs that Americans would gladly accept, and that illegal immigration contributes to our high unemployment rate and depresses wages and working conditions of many American workers. Experts such as former INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) Commissioner Leonard Chapman and former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, despite their differences of political philosophy, agree that removing illegal aliens from the work force could open jobs for millions of unemployed Americans.

With the Federal Government in debt in excess of $1 trillion, we cannot afford to support millions of our citizens on public assistance and unemployment programs while millions of jobs are filled by illegal aliens. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that each unemployed American costs the Federal Treasury an average of about $7,000 per year in unemployment and welfare benefits and other costs. Thus, for every million Americans displaced by illegal aliens, the Federal Treasury loses $7 billion per year.

Amnesty would also impose a substantial new welfare burden on American taxpayers, although the proponents of the measure delay much of this added expense a few years by denying federally funded public assistance to legalized aliens for three years after permanent resident status is granted. Delaying the day of fiscal reckoning may make amnesty more acceptable to some, but the bills will eventually come due.

The Office of Management and Budget last year estimated that the added cost of providing welfare benefits to amnestied aliens could exceed two billion dollars annually by 1990. The INS could hire several thousand more American citizens to protect our borders and apprehend illegal aliens for a tiny fraction of the increased welfare costs of amnesty.

In addition to the burdens of unemployment and added welfare expenditures which amnesty would impose on Americans, I fear that it will encourage illegal immigration in the future. This dangerous precedent will tempt foreigners to enter illegally in the hope of benefitting from future legalizations. Foreigners facing long immigrant visa backlogs, and seeing lawbreakers rewarded with amnesty, may decide to enter illegally. It is reasonable to predict that the same groups lobbying for mass amnesty today (and against any realistic enforcement for our immigration laws) will join the millions of new legalized aliens in calls for a second amnesty a few years from now.

I predict that many amnestied illegal aliens will bring relatives in illegally once they have a secure immigration status and opportunities to obtain better jobs. Many illegal aliens are here simply to work for a few years and do not desire to become part of our society. Amnesty would make permanent settlement so attractive that many illegal aliens would decide to stay and send for parents, spouses, children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and the entire extended family of Third World cultures.

Amnesty discriminates against foreigners who obey our immigration laws and wait patiently abroad for immigrant visas. The visa backlog is now in the hundreds of thousands and waiting periods of seven or eight years are common. Amnesty will not only be unfair to these law-abiding foreigners, it may delay their unlawful immigration for years. Those amnestied aliens who receive permanent resident status (including the temporary residents who adjust status after two years) receive the right to bring in family members within the preference system, thus further delaying other prospective immigrants.

The negative impact on other future immigrants will be even more dramatic five years after the first awards of permanent resident status to illegal aliens. As hundreds of thousands of amnestied aliens become American citizens in 1989 and subsequent years, they will begin to bring in immediate relatives subject to no numerical limitation. Under the terms of the bill, the number of visas available for numerically limited family reunification immigrants would be determined by subtracting the number of immediate relatives admitted in the prior year from 350,000. While this is a needed reform to control increasing admissions, other prospective immigrants will be unfairly penalized if the bill’s mass amnesty is adopted.

When immediate relatives of naturalized previously legalized aliens are added to the normal flow of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (currently running in excess of 150,000 annually and growing steadily), it becomes quite possible that there could be no family reunification visas available for several years in the 1990s. It is reasonable to predict that many frustrated visa seekers will enter illegally to join their relatives.

No one knows how many illegals are here or how many will apply for amnesty. Some experts, including former INS officers, have estimated that there may be over twelve million illegal aliens present in our nation. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors estimated on April 15, 1982, that there were 1.1 million illegal aliens in that one county. I can only caution that, if the numbers should prove to be in the upper ranges of the estimates, law-abiding prospective immigrants will be crowded out of the visa lines by the relatives of the former illegal aliens.

The tremendous administrative burden imposed upon the INS by the amnesty program will make it even harder for the INS to combat illegal immigration. Realistic observers assume that many illegal aliens entering after the January 1, 1980 cutoff date or even arriving in the next few months will obtain amnesty using fraudulent rent receipts, false affidavits from friends, and other illicit documents. We must remember that illegal aliens live in a world where the use of fraudulent documents is common. Reports of “amnesty kits” should come as no surprise. Whether the understaffed and beleaguered INS could properly screen millions of applicants for amnesty and perform its other duties is open to question.

I am not persuaded by the reasons given by my colleagues to justify amnesty. The assertion that it is impossible to find and repatriate such a large number of aliens is truly only if Congress continues to deny adequate funding to the INS. Modest user fees charged foreigners at our borders, ports and airports could easily raise enough revenue to triple the law enforcement resources of the INS. The presence of millions of illegal aliens is not due to waste or misguided INS priorities; it is a result of the inadequate support Congress has given the INS. I believe we should at least try to enforce our immigration laws, using employer sanctions and increased manpower, before we grant any amnesty.

Another stated goal of amnesty is to protect the labor pool of employers who now hire illegal aliens. I am not unmindful of the widespread opinion in sectors of the business community that there are not enough Americans willing to take low-paying jobs. However, amnesty will not solve such labor shortages. Illegal aliens presently in the lowest-paying jobs will be free to obtain better jobs and educations. Our distinguished former colleague, Senator Hayakawa, noted last year, “Once legalized, rural workers will migrate to cities where year-round employment is available.”

The answer to American agriculture’s need for temporary season labor is contained, not in amnesty, but in a limited foreign worker program (such as the streamlined H-2 program). Shortages of year-round unskilled labor could be addressed by reforming our bloated welfare state to require able-bodied citizens to work at any job available. Furthermore, because the employer sanctions apply only to persons hired in the future, there should be no sudden disruption of existing work forces.

The proponents of amnesty say they want to “eliminate an illegal subclass.” I agree with this goal, but suggest we achieve it by sending illegal aliens home. Similarly, the puzzling talk of “equities” developed by illegal aliens long resident in our country is unconvincing. I believe unemployed Americans and our over-burdened taxpayers have greater equities.

I also believe the specter of “mass deportations” raised by amnesty proponents is unrealistic. Even with a determined Congress and President, it would take years to locate the millions of illegal aliens who have entered during a decade of inattention by Congress and three administrations. To say that such a gradual return to proper immigration control cannot be achieved without wholesale violations of the rights of Americans of Hispanic descent is an insult to this nation and the dedicated employees of the INS, many of whom are Hispanic Americans. There is nothing inhumane in returning illegal aliens to their native lands.

Vociferous organizations which champion amnesty also have opposed employer sanctions, INS workplace raids, INS residential area control, and even replacing torn fences on our southern border. Before we give too much weight to the opinions, we should remember the views of the majority of our citizens who oppose amnesty. In order to secure needed legislation to deal with illegal immigration, we should not have to offer amnesty to attempt to placate those who champion lawbreakers. Even if pressure groups fill the air with phony cries of “discrimination,” we have a duty to enforce our laws.

Lest my concern with rewarding lawbreaking through amnesty and my opposition to illegal immigration be misinterpreted as hostility to immigrants or immigration, I think it sufficient to say that I favor continuation of our tradition as a home for refugees fleeing tyranny and reasonable numbers of immigrants willing to enter pursuant to our laws. But compassion and generosity have their limits. Our immigration laws limit the number of immigrants we admit each year so that we can absorb them without adversely affecting our own citizens.

Mass amnesty is detrimental to enforcement of our immigration laws and to the interests of the American people. ■


About the author

The Honorable John P. East (1931–1986) served as U.S. Senator from North Carolina (1981–1986) and authored The American Conservative Movement: The Philosophical Founders (Regnery Books, 1986).