BURKE: The difficulty with amnesty

Moralistic calls for amnesty ignore the complex realities of the immigration debate


DREAMers on Grounds hosted a walk-out to bring attention to immigration reform.

Charlotte McClintock | Cavalier Daily

On Nov. 1, DREAMers on Grounds hosted a walk-out. Unlike so many modern advocacy movements, this demonstration was not weighed down by intersectional complexities. It was tightly focused on the issue of immigration, triggered by the Trump administration’s rejection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan, or DACA. Some of the attendees were DACA recipients, though they demonstrated not just for “those 800,000 DACA recipients, but for the 11 million people who live in this country’s shadows.” Our nation admittedly finds itself in a rather sad state on the issue of immigration, tightly gridlocked and verging on comically partisan. Meanwhile, those 11 million languish in the resulting indecision. Our past actions have guaranteed that we will not find an easy or universally satisfying solution to this problem — some will lose, and much is at stake. What seems widely ignored, however, is that our past does provide us with valuable lessons. History, in fact, shows us that lax immigration policy often serves political and corporate interests while doing virtually nothing to address the issue of global poverty, even harming our native poor along the way.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed immigration amnesty into law. Albeit, he had hoped to use this as a catalyst for stricter border control efforts and more harsh penalties for those who hired illegal immigrants, but these never materialized. The effects have proven disastrous for Republicans in Reagan’s adopted home state of California. As soon as 1988, Republican hegemony was faltering, and in 1992 Clinton turned the state the familiar shade of blue that has persisted through today. An L.A. Times article highlights the issue of immigration and the booming Latino population as deciding factors in this shift. In 2014, Latinos leapfrogged whites as the largest ethnic group in the state, and Pew Research Polls suggest this will guarantee Democratic control for the foreseeable future. This all should serve to illustrate just how massive the political stakes of immigration are. We rightly place little faith in the ethical intentions of our elected representatives, and we should never forget to take into account who exactly gains from manipulating immigration policies.

Among those who benefit from illegal immigration are the wealthy. In the words of immigration researcher and Harvard professor George J. Borjas, “somebody’s lower wage is always somebody else’s higher profit.” Borjas notes that immigrants have the effect of driving down wages and providing cheap, easily exploited labor. And while immigrants do make a substantial contribution to the nation’s overall wealth — about $50 billion annually — this is offset by the equally large cost of government assistance that immigrants incur. In addition, Borjas notes that the growing low-skilled workforce does negatively impact the wages of America’s poor native born population, with the earnings of high school dropouts dropping by between $800 and $1,500 a year over the past two decades. Borjas says that the observed expansion of the labor force, driven by immigrants, has had this direct causal impact on wages. 

As much one might be suspicious of a politician’s motives and repulsed by the exploitation of cheap labor, the more obvious moral argument seems to render these concerns moot — if we see ourselves as a compassionate society, we are obligated to share our immense privilege with those less fortunate. But therein lies a dilemma, for indeed there are billions of people less fortunate than us Americans, and millions more suffering in extreme poverty, making less than $1.90 a day. No amount of immigration into the United States could put a significant dent into these numbers without stretching our institutions far beyond their breaking points. Instead, The World Bank’s 2016 report on “Poverty and Shared Prosperity” indicates that progress is driven by internal policies, and that “helping people where they are” is a far more effective option. For its part, the United States ought to consider ending the disastrous war on drugs and work on overhauling the system of legal immigration.

Despite what some might have you believe, it is not true that other nations are “not sending their best.” In fact, the United States’ weak stance on immigration incentivizes the most proactive — the best and brightest, even — to make their way here, robbing their native nations of crucial human capital. Research indicates that most immigrants who find success here possessed strong work ethics to begin with, and end up merely moving to an equivalent socioeconomic level to that which they occupied in their native country.

Today’s immigrants come for much the same reasons as past waves of predominantly European immigrants — to improve their quality of life and have a shot at the American dream. Many are good people — neighbors, colleagues, classmates and friends. Immigrants have much to contribute. However, if history is anything to go by, then we should be skeptical of grand plans for amnesty without concrete promises for genuine reform and improved security. Such naïve efforts are easily exploited and do little to move us any closer to our altruistic goals, despite our noble intentions. 

Benjamin Burke is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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