There are about 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States.
Of those 11 million, some are dangerous criminals, but most, obviously, are not. What’s more, a bit more than 8 million of them are gainfully employed — about 6 percent of the total US workforce.
Of those 11 million, 66 percent have lived in the United States for more than a decade and 80 percent have lived here for at least five years.
You can’t really apprehend and remove 11 million people in a manner consistent with due process in any kind of logistically tractable or financially feasible way. Back in the day, they’d orchestrate removal operations like “Operation Wetback” that just swept up Latino citizens along with unauthorized farmworkers and deported everyone in an unprincipled way precisely because mass removal is hard to do within the confines of the rule of law.
What’s more, the thing you really want to do is stop people from coming by making it infeasible to get a job when you’re here without authorization to work. I’ve heard some people raise technical objections to the E-Verify system and I can’t really speak to that, but clearly, something like the E-Verify system is a much better idea than a 30-foot concrete wall.
But when you have 8 million unauthorized workers, getting tough on the people employing them is both politically and economically challenging. And when most of those workers have been here for a decade or more and are often part of blended families, throwing them all out of work and expecting them to self-deport seems both cruel and broadly unrealistic.
Hence, the logic of amnesty.
A path to citizenship: dull but important
People have been talking for so long about the idea of comprehensive immigration legislation that gives long-settled unauthorized residents the opportunity to pay back taxes and some kind of fine in exchange for legal status and a path to citizenship that everyone is sick of hearing about it.
On the left, the speed with which “Abolish ICE” went viral shows that activists are bored with this idea, while immigrant communities themselves have grown deeply cynical after a decade of talk led to no action and then to Donald Trump.
And, of course, on the right, this is the last thing anyone wants to talk about ever since Trump’s brand of demagoguery proved to be a winning strategy.
But the logic really is compelling. Of course an amnesty would accomplish what squishy liberals want to accomplish in terms of offering a humane solution for well-meaning people in their families. But it would also move the ball forward on almost everything restrictionists say they want, turning up the heat on both genuine dangerous criminals and scofflaw employers. What’s more, granting legal status to long-settled workers will increase tax revenue and give them more opportunities to save and invest, thus boosting the economy.
Now, obviously, to the extent that the real issue is simply racist panic about people with brown skin (a large minority of the public) or a desire to find an issue to cynically demagogue about to distract attention from your plutocratic economic policies (a small but very influential group), then the path to citizenship doesn’t help you with any of that. And that’s a big part of the reason why we have all these problems.
But I think it’s important for people on the other side of the issue to recognize what a genuinely good idea the core proposition at the heart of various failed comprehensive reform plans is, because this is the kind of thing that is only going to get done if it’s a high political priority. And my sense right now is that Democrats are disinclined to try to prioritize it.
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