Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants: Curing the Symptom and Not the Cold

Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants currently inside the U.S. is not a long-term solution to solving the immigration problem. Amnesty only deals with illegal immigrants currently inside the U.S. and does not deal with future immigrants. It does nothing to address the conflict between the narrow categories of admittance and the lax enforcement standards. When amnesty was granted in the 1980s, it dealt with illegal immigrants inside the U.S. at the time, but did not reform the system, thereby leading to the situation we face today.

Amnesty gives relief to illegal immigrants currently inside the U.S. and does not deal with future immigrants. An illegal immigrant is a person who either entered the U.S. illegally, or entered the U.S. legally and has stayed beyond the time they were legally allowed to do so. To illustrate, someone who crossed the border without going through a border checkpoint has entered the U.S. illegally, whereas someone who came to the U.S. on a tourist visa and stayed beyond the expiration of the tourist visa has overstayed and is “out of status.”

Simply because someone is deportable does not mean that they will be deported. This is because there is a discrepancy between the government’s resources and the number of immigrants going through the system each year. This has led to approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

As immigration, and how to address the 11 million immigrants in the U.S., has become an increasingly popular topic, one of the proposed solutions is granting amnesty to some, or all, of the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. There is no standard definition for amnesty, but the general concept of amnesty is forgiving an illegal immigrant for entering the U.S. illegally, or overstaying their legal status, and granting them the right to stay in the U.S. permanently (or, to use the legal term, become a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR)). Under current U.S. law, an LPR can become a U.S. citizen after being an LPR for five years.

The problem with amnesty is that it is inherently backward looking. It only deals with illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. and does nothing to address the issue of why there is such a large number of illegal immigrants in the first place. While amnesty can be part of immigration reform, it cannot be the only solution. The reason why this is true requires an explanation of the current immigration system.

The current immigration system is very restrictive of who can stay in the U.S. permanently. Only U.S. citizens and LPRs can stay in the U.S. permanently. Anyone who does not fall into one of these two categories will eventually have to leave the U.S. (or overstay and become an illegal immigrant). Therefore, the crux of the whole issue is: who is eligible to become an LPR?

The short answer to this question is very few people, relatively speaking. There are three paths to becoming an LPR: family-based, employment-based, and humanitarian-based. The family-based path requires having a qualifying relative who is a U.S. citizen or an eb5 regional center LPR already. The employment-based path requires convincing the U.S. government that the individual is so highly skilled in their field that the U.S. will benefit from making that individual an LPR. The humanitarian-based path is for asylees and refugees.

In addition to qualifying under one of these categories, there is also the issue of visa availability. The number of green cards given out each year is capped. While a select few categories are exempt from the cap (e.g., spouses of U.S. citizens), the overwhelming majority of people who qualify for a green card are subject to the cap.

The cap on green cards is both general and specific. This means that there is a limit on the total number of green cards given out each year for categories that fall under the cap. In addition, there are individual limits for each of those categories. For example, there is an annual limit on the number of green cards given out to foreign nationals from the Philippines who qualify for a green card on the basis of having a U.S. citizen sibling.

The statistical reality of this system is that the demand for green cards vastly outnumbers the supply of green cards. This has led to an enormous backlog in some categories. For example, as of December 2012, foreign nationals from the Philippines who qualify for a green card on the basis of having a U.S. citizen sibling could expect to wait approximately 23 years to receive their green card.

Through a combination of narrow categories for qualification and huge backlogs, the U.S. immigration system has shut out a large number of people who want to immigrate to the U.S. Some of these people have chosen to come to the U.S. illegally, or overstay their status and stay illegally.

The other half of this story is the enforcement side of the U.S. immigration system. The simple reality is that the U.S. government does not have enough resources to enforce its strict immigration laws. This means that there aren’t enough border patrols to keep out individuals who are crossing borders illegally, there aren’t enough law enforcement personnel to find and deport illegal immigrants, and there isn’t enough space in jails to detain those who are caught, thereby leading to their release back into the U.S. When you combine the strict immigration laws with the underfunded enforcement system, you get 11 million illegal immigrants.

So why won’t amnesty work? Let’s imagine that a law is passed giving amnesty to every single illegal immigrant in the U.S., effective July 4, 2013. As of July 4, 2013, no more illegal immigration problem! But what happens on July 5, 2013? Since the same restrictive immigration system would still exist, and the same underfunded enforcement system would still exist, a whole new wave of illegal immigrants would begin entering the U.S. After a few years, we would be right back where we started.

In fact, that is exactly how we got to where we are today. In 1986, three million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty. The immigration system and enforcement system were tweaked, but not overhauled. Since 1986, 11 million illegal immigrants have come to the U.S. Amnesty is a band-aid, not a solution.

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