America’s ongoing argument about immigration has followed a fairly consistent sequence for three decades. Each round begins with news reports about the fact that thousands of new immigrants are settling here illegally every week. These reports lead to charges that the United States has lost control of its borders and is being overrun by foreigners. Congress holds hearings. Employers say that they need foreign-born workers to fill jobs that Americans don’t want and that they cannot distinguish those with fake credentials from those with genuine ones. Legal immigrants push for higher family reunification quotas, hoping to hasten the day when their grown children, parents, or siblings will get a visa.
Congress then cobbles together a plan that includes tighter control of the border and a better system for identifying job applicants with fake credentials. In deference to pro-immigration groups it sometimes also includes more family reunification slots or an amnesty for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. Occasionally Congress passes such legislation. But no matter what Congress does, the provisions that are supposed to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants remain unenforced, such immigrants continue to slip across the border, temporary visitors continue to overstay their visas, and the number of people living in the United States without permission from Washington continues to rise. So after a few years the same cycle begins again.
In 2006 the Senate, with the backing of President Bush and some leading Democrats and Republicans, voted 62–36 for an immigration bill that included provisions making it harder to cross the Mexican border and easier to identify firms that hire illegal immigrants, along with a new guest worker program allowing employers to recruit unskilled workers overseas for short stints of employment here. Its most controversial provision, which eventually killed it in the House, would have allowed people who had been in the United States illegally for five or more years to become legal residents if they paid both a $2,000 fine and back taxes on their past earnings. If they then worked in the United States for another six years they would have become eligible for permanent residence and eventually for citizenship. Because illegal immigrants were to be fined, supporters usually called the proposal a “path to citizenship” rather than an “amnesty.” Its opponents continued to call it an amnesty, since it still rewarded lawbreakers. In what follows I use the terms “amnesty” and “legalization” interchangeably, and refer throughout to “immigrants,” whether they intend to become citizens or not.
This year’s immigration bill was broadly similar to last year’s. Its most controversial feature was again an amnesty, which would have covered more people than last year’s amnesty but would also have imposed more onerous conditions on applicants.1 Sixteen senators who had voted for last year’s bill voted against this year’s version, and it was defeated 46–53. Of the ten Republicans who changed sides almost all were hard-core conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The five Democrats who changed…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.