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The Case for Amnesty: Why It’s Time to Explore a Path to Citizenship for Illegal Immigrants

Amnesty for illegal immigrants would solve numerous contemporary issues for native-born Americans and undocumented residents alike.

Image Credit: iStock-MattGush

Build Back Better, the top priority in the Biden Administration’s agenda, is likely to fall through after receiving opposition from across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, there are certain provisions that deserve to be reviewed once again. In particular, Build Back Better offers the first broadly applying immigrant amnesty program since President Reagan’s administration in 1986.

Immigration remains one of the most fiercely debated topics in the nation and, as such, has avoided major legislation addressing it. Despite the polemics surrounding the issue, the case for amnesty may be clearer than expected. Amnesty for illegal immigrants would solve numerous contemporary political issues for native-born Americans and undocumented residents alike.

First, much to one’s surprise, illegal immigrants in our current system are the beneficiaries of de facto unequal legal treatment, relative to legal immigrants and native-born Americans alike. Say, for example, an illegal immigrant were to commit a crime in addition to coming here illegally in the first place. They would have no reason to go to court for their secondary crime. If they did go to court, they would be quickly deported, as their entry to America was a crime in itself. There would be no point in even going before a court to argue any other crimes they had committed, no matter how petty. Furthermore, the government and/or police would have a difficult time tracking them down if they committed a secondary offense, as the illegal immigrant would have no legal documents or registered address.

Not only do these circumstances disincentivize illegal immigrants from appearing before a court, they also create extraordinarily perverse incentives to not report crimes committed against illegal immigrants. For example, a study from The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University finds that “sanctuary policies contribute to a reduced domestic homicide rate among Hispanic women by between 52 and 62 percent” and, more generally, increases “cooperation between local law enforcement and immigrant communities” which helps “improve public safety by lowering rates of domestic violence”. Amnesty provides even greater legal protections for illegal immigrants and can be reasonably presumed to produce similarly positive effects in crime-reporting as sanctuary policies.

The outlined scenario shows how illegal immigrants are given both unintended advantages and disadvantages in our criminal justice system. This can quickly be remedied by providing documentation for illegal immigrants so they can be held accountable and hold others to account just like legal residents.

On top of bringing about a fairer society in the eyes of the law, providing documentation for illegal immigrants also makes contributing to the American economy much less complicated. While many illegal immigrants still manage to pay taxes one way or the other, a simplified tax filing process, brought about by not having to find loopholes or obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, is bound to have favorable effects on the number of taxpayers. Thus, providing proper documentation for illegal immigrants would increase the benefactors paying into Social Security and other entitlements.

As per the Board of Trustees’ most recent annual estimate, an increase of 100,000 immigrants would improve the long-range actuarial balance of Social Security by 0.9 percent of taxable payroll. This is especially beneficial when considering the state of America’s aging population, as the United States has a relatively low fertility rate, at 1.7.

When examining the aggregates, similar positive growth is shown following an immigration amnesty program. In a study of a possible 2013 immigration amnesty initiative, GDP was expected to rise by an additional $830 billion over the next decade, with national income rising nearly $500 billion extra in that same span. Such figures do not come as a surprise when one considers that “immigrant workers, entrepreneurs, and investors… account for about 11 percent of all economic output,” as noted by Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh. Considering more amnesty would be given out today compared to 2013, it can be assumed that these numbers will only rise going forward.

Not only would legalization be a boon to native-born Americans and the macroeconomy, it would behoove illegal immigrants as well. Providing illegal immigrants access to proper documentation and a Social Security number has improved their economic prospects in the past: following President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), legalized immigrants saw wage growth of up to 15%, likely due to increased job opportunities in both number and quality. Enhanced wage growth among newly authorized immigrants was also seen proceeding President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

Moreover, such enhanced wage growth for immigrants does not come at the expense of native wages. As Alex Nowrasteh summarizes here: “the most negative estimate in the peer‐​reviewed academic literature, immigrants increased native wages by 0.6 percent overall…” Such prosperity would hold especially true today, as more jobs than ever require E-Verify, leaving even fewer jobs for illegal immigrants.

To go even further, Yale University Professor Zachary Liscow conducted a study in 2017 finding that unauthorized teenagers were about 2.6 percent less likely to be enrolled in school compared to those with a legal immigration status but still born to the same immigrant families. When fewer young immigrants receive an education, we all lose from the entrepreneurship and innovation they would have otherwise produced. As Professors Scheve and Slaughter note in their 2018 article in Foreign Affairs, immigrants comprise “39% of US-resident Nobel prize winners in chemistry, medicine and physics over the past 20 years” and have founded “43% of fortune 500 companies”.

Build Back Better’s amnesty plan would authorize about 8 million illegal immigrants to legally reside in the United States. While Build Back Better is unlikely to pass at this stage, this provision of the bill needn’t die. It can and should be brought up as its own separate bill, and each member of congress should be made to vote on it in order for their views to be made public. Such a policy would not only ease many of the stressors dealt with by illegal immigrants, but would lead to quality of life improvements for legal immigrants and American citizens as well.

  • Jack Nicastro is a fellow with FEE's Henry Hazlitt Project for Educational Journalism. He is a student at Dartmouth College majoring in Economics and minoring in Philosophy. At school, Jack is a senior correspondent for the Dartmouth Review, the president of the Dartmouth Libertarians, and co-chair of the Political Economy Project Student Leadership Council. Outside of school, Jack is a regional coordinator for Students For Liberty.

    Follow him on Twitter and Substack.

  • Siddharth Gundapaneni is an Economics and Political Science major at Binghamton University. His interests lie around tax reform, spending restraint, and lessening government influence in day-to-day life.