Immigration Reform Is Not Amnesty

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Many opponents of immigration reform have labeled any type of legalization for unauthorized immigrants “amnesty.” In common terminology, an amnesty is a general forgiveness for past offenses. Calling immigration reform amnesty brands it with a scarlet letter in the minds of many who are skeptical of reform. A recent video made by the Cato Institute explains just some of the many steps an unauthorized immigrant will have to go through to become legalized if the Senate’s immigration reform becomes law:

Here are some of the steps (this is not an exhaustive list) an unauthorized immigrant must follow to earn the initial registered provisional immigration (RPI) status:

  • In the country prior to 2012
  • Pays any and all outstanding tax bills (not back taxes)
  • Goes through national security and background checks
  • $1,000 fine
  • $500 fee
  • Then the unauthorized immigrant will receive a work permit valid for six years

After six years, the immigrant will need to apply for another RPI permit:

  • Proves that she’s been employed for virtually the entire six year period
  • Be at no less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level
  • $500 fee

After four years, the immigrant can apply for a green card if she:

  • Proves she can speak English
  • Proves she hasn’t been on welfare
  • Passes another round of background and security checks
  • Pays all of the normal fees associated with a green card
  • The federal government meets most of its immigration enforcement goals

That doesn’t seem like amnesty to me.

2 thoughts on “Immigration Reform Is Not Amnesty”

  1. I am not sure what to think of this. Requiring immigrants to go through all of this red tape seems cruel and pointless.

    I know that “amnesty” is politically unfeasible, but the idea kind of assumes that immigrants are criminals and have done something morally wrong that requires some kind of recompense.

    They are simply looking to better their lives, and haven’t done anything to harm anyone else. We are the ones that should be seeking some kind of moral amnesty for our actions.

    1. I actually talked last Friday about this with Alex, Michael Clemens, and a couple of DREAMers who are personally affected by this kind of “amnesty”. The DREAM Act-related legislation on the table right now is just as mind-bogglingly petty. Currently you can’t have committed more than 3 misdemeanours to be even eligible to apply; legislators are pushing to reduce this to just one. So if you’ve ever, say, been caught drinking underage, or driven more than 20mph over the speed limit in Virginia, you have to be deported (or continue living “illegally”).

      Then there are a lot of fees for applying; the nominal $500 fee doesn’t include legal fees, which on the low end are about US$1,500. The all-in cost to apply for legalisation can run up to $5,000. I suppose this is a keyhole solution of sorts, but paying these costs upfront can be hard. Undocumented migrants cannot easily finance these fees, considering it’s difficult to build credit history when you aren’t legally authorised to be present in the country. It also seems wasteful that most of these fees go to lawyers instead of the supposed victims of these “job thieves”.

      Then you also need to show 10 years of tax returns. Since DREAMers are young, that means their parents need to show 10 years of tax returns with the pertinent DREAMer listed as a dependent. Clemens pointed out that the IRS requires Americans to maintain tax documents for only 7 years — in other words, this is a requirement even Americans can’t meet.

      And even if you meet all these arbitrary requirements, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about how long the government will take to process your application. Based on the experience DREAMers have had with Obama’s announced Deferred Action policy, you can go for months, or even well over a year, before receiving official permission to remain in the country, and so during this period the sword of Damocles continues hanging over your head.

      So far as I can tell, the goal doesn’t seem to be giving people a just process by which to regularise their status, even if the last technical offense they committed (by crossing the border) is years or decades in the past. The focus seems to be pretending you have a process, when in reality most people, even actual “law-abiding” Americans, wouldn’t be able to get through it. It hardly seems inappropriate to compare it to the Jim Crow voting laws some US states once had, where of course you could vote — if you passed a test that most people would have trouble passing.

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