Immigration Reform 2013: Why is Amnesty Such a Dirty Word?


Emboldened by the recent sweep of Latino voters, the Obama administration has promised to make immigration reform a top issue moving forward. Despite this energy, politicians are still all too eager to jump up and say that any "path-to-citizenship" reform would not be the dreaded term "amnesty." But why has the word amnesty become so taboo?

Many decision makers on both sides of the political aisle contend that amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States would be destructive to our economy (a.k.a. the "they took our jobs" argument), drain our entitlement programs, and encourage even more illegal immigration. So let's tackle these issues.

One, immigration is a net positive on the economy, no matter how you shake it. Economic study dating back to Adam Smith has showed that increasing the number of economic actors in a market increases the specialization of labor and is a net boon to any economy. The fallacy of "they took our jobs" also doesn't hold up in a modern economy. There isn't a fixed pie of jobs on the market. If that were the case, then with the influx of immigrants, women workers, and baby-boomers in the U.S. within the past 60 years, you would see massive unemployment over that period (which we don't).

Interestingly, many of the foreign workers that immigrate to the United States are just complements to the current workforce — meaning they are either very high skilled or low skilled. Economist Ben Powell expertly explodes the economic myths of immigration in this short video here.

Two, the argument that increased immigration would just exacerbate our spending problem and place an increased burden on taxpayers is tricky. Immigrants do consume public goods such as education for their children, health care, etc. that cost state and local governments an estimated $11 billion to $22 billion per year. However, empirical study of illegal’s' economic impact demonstrates that they actually contribute more to the public coffers in taxes than they cost in social services. Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a path to citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants would increase federal revenues by $48 billion while only costing taxpayers $23 billion.

Even if they were a drain on the government, that wouldn't be an indictment of the immigration system but of government policy. If policy makers are worried about the drag on taxpayers, then why not reform our entitlement system? Still if they can't do that, then decision makers can still charge an additional income tax on immigrants to pay for the programs … and foreign labor would still come to the U.S. in droves!

Lastly, do you want to punish people according to the law … even if the law is unjust and immoral? Immigration to the U.S. is far more effective at helping foreigners than foreign aid. By just moving here, people from the worst parts of the world can increase their standard of living dramatically. So why, as thoughtful people, should we support immigration restrictions that just act to perpetually trap millions in Third World-misery?

Amnesty for illegal currently living here would bring millions of people living on the fringe of society into the fold, making most everyone better off.  Even if economists and I are wrong about the benefits of immigration, there are still cheaper and more humane alternatives to deporting millions of people while building a wall to keep people out. So don't we have a responsibility to find it?