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As Congress ties itself in knots attempting to give amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, one critical issue appears conspicuously absent from the debate: the rule of law.
It is a topic that Republicans should know pretty well by now.
During President Obama’s two terms, Republicans routinely excoriated his administration for its casual relationship with the law, particularly in the area of immigration enforcement. “Lawlessness” is how many Republicans characterized Obama’s approach, particularly his unilateral executive action to institute the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, even compiled a list of what he described as the Obama’s Administration’s “non-enforcement” of federal immigration laws.
For years, fealty to the rule of law has formed the basis for Republican efforts to end sanctuary cities, take stronger enforcement actions against illegal immigrants who commit crimes, and raise opposition to amnesty on the grounds that it is fundamentally unfair to the legal immigrants who “wait their turn” and “follow the law.”
However, in contemplating a massive amnesty for upwards of 2 million people, Republicans are threatening to undo not just their political credibility, but also risk the future of our immigration policies and our ability, as a country, to maintain a just and stable public order.
That amnesty, as a policy, could pose such dangers is apparent when one considers the nature of the act itself. The central component of amnesty is a reward for lawbreaking. When a pathway to citizenship is added to the mix, as President Trump and some in Congress are proposing, lawbreaking is rewarded not only with legal status but with the privilege of having a say in running the country.
In other words, it is granting those who have just violated the law with the responsibility to support and defend those very same laws. The contradiction is obvious.
Granting amnesty of this kind has consequences, both philosophical and practical.
As a practical matter, amnesties simply don’t work as a disincentive to illegal immigration. Rather, it’s the opposite. The “one-time” amnesty of 1986, which backers sold as a “necessary part of an effective enforcement program,” clearly didn’t work, if the roughly 12.5 million illegal aliens now living in the United States are any indication.
Likewise, after President Obama announced the DACA program and weakened immigration enforcement, a surge of unaccompanied minors and families appeared at the U.S. border, falsely believing they could now stay in the country legally.
On a philosophical level, however, undermining the rule of law has consequences that resonate far beyond the realm of immigration. The Constitution designates Congress as the body that legislates, and the government turns on the equal and unbiased application of those laws. Congressional action to publicly reward those who violate the laws—and for no other reason than to convenience a political ideology—could very well shake the foundations of our social order.
Moreover, what does an amnesty say to the millions of immigrants waiting to come here legally? In most cases, these would-be immigrants have waited years in their home countries for our dysfunctional legal migration system to process their applications. In many cases, the government will deny requests for legal status—never mind citizenship—for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
Consider the case of my friend Chloe, who came to the United States from England in 2011. Chloe was granted legal status on an H1-B specialty employment visa to do international legal work for a small, D.C.-based nonprofit. When her visa term ended, she applied for permanent legal residence (not citizenship) to be able to continue to work in the United States.
Despite being a highly educated woman with two degrees and admittance to the rigorous and competitive New York State Bar, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services arbitrarily deemed her English law degree “insufficiently equivalent” to an American juris doctor and sent her packing.
Unlike the millions of illegal immigrants that Congress seeks to protect, Chloe complied with her deportation order, and departed the country within the court-ordered 10 days, leaving behind her friends, job, apartment, boyfriend, and her dog. She’s currently sitting in England, awaiting the outcome of her final appeal.
Republicans have claimed for years that Chloe is the type of immigrant they want to attract in a merit-based system: law-abiding, educated, fluent in English, and capable of significant contribution.
Despite her best efforts to comply with the law, Congress would rather give priority to illegal immigrants.
In deciding to grant amnesty, this is the real question that Congress must consider. A public policy that rewards lawbreakers makes the “rule of law” a meaningless phrase. Worse, it makes a mockery of the efforts of those struggling to comply with the rules.
Amnesty is more than just a political choice. Though Democrats claim amnesty merely allows illegal aliens to “seek a better life,” there is much more at stake than mere platitudes. As a policy, amnesty would create significant border security risks and significantly change the nature of our social order.
At the very least, the debate over amnesty should reflect these stakes.