House Republican leaders this afternoon released principles for immigration reform, including allowing currently unlawful immigrants to live “legally … in the U.S.” This is amnesty. Although no legislative language has yet been drafted, the framework is essentially the same as the Senate bill they say they will not go to conference with. It includes everything from border security, to visa tracking, to employment verification and reform of the legal immigration system in addition to amnesty.

The standards follow the logic that it is best to address all immigration problems this session of Congress, even if in different bills.  The standards follow the Senate’s approach of promising border security and workplace enforcement (through typically meaningless “triggers”) in exchange for immediate amnesty of those here unlawfully.

We've tried amnesty before

Because amnesty by itself is extremely unpopular, sometimes policymakers include other, more popular measures alongside it.  For example, in 1986 Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, a “one time” amnesty of some 3 million unlawful immigrants and promised border security and workplace enforcement. Unfortunately, the promises were not kept. Today more than 10 million unlawful immigrants reside in the United States. Instead of repeating past mistakes, a truly step-by-step process would be to ensure border and workplace laws are being enforced, period.  The only real way to be sure that unlawful immigration has been stopped is to count the number of unlawful immigrants in the census.

What Amnesty Really Means

Some have confused the terms “amnesty” and “path to citizenship,” implying or stating that a new path to citizenship would be amnesty, but legal status is not.  Allowing those in the country unlawfully to stay and work in the United States, i.e. granting legal status, is amnesty.  Granting a path to citizenship is actually amnesty plus. Others insist that because legal status is not automatic or has some conditions, it is not amnesty. Some describe these proposals as “earned legalization.”  Their argument also falls short.

Heritage’s Matthew Spalding analyzed the term amnesty during the 2007 debate over immigration reform, noting that the 1986 amnesty was widely acknowledged as amnesty (in fact it is used as the example of amnesty in Black’s Law Dictionary).  That 1986 bill, Spalding noted, included conditions such as “payment of application fees, acquisition of English-language skills, understanding of American civics, a medical exam, and registration for military service.”

Spalding concluded that “the granting of legal status is still ‘amnesty’ even if it is conditional and not automatic or does not necessarily end in citizenship.”

What Constitutes Amnesty

The fact that today’s unlawful immigrants would have to pay small fines is largely inconsequential when compared to the lifetime benefits they can expect from taxpayers. Last year, before the introduction of the Senate amnesty bill (S. 744), Heritage’s group vice president for research, David Addington, explained what constitutes amnesty:

The term “amnesty” is often used loosely with reference to aliens unlawfully in the United States. Sometimes it refers to converting the status of an alien from unlawful to lawful, either without conditions or on a condition such as a payment of a fee to the government. Sometimes it refers to granting lawful authority for an alien unlawfully in the U.S. to remain in the U.S., become a lawful permanent resident, or even acquire citizenship by naturalization, either without conditions or on a condition such as payment of a fee to the government or performance of particular types of work for specified periods. Amnesty comes in many forms, but in all its variations, it discourages respect for the law, treats law-breaking aliens better than law-following aliens, and encourages future unlawful immigration into the United States.

The Heritage Foundation  has been consistent in applying the term amnesty in a way that comports with the reality of what the bill would do: It would forgive those who broke our immigration laws and allow them to stay in the country.  Heritage uses the term amnesty in the immigration context as it has been used by the media and public figures in other contexts, such as President Ford’s amnesty of Vietnam-era draft evaders and programs to forgive tax crimes by paying a penalty.

Unfair, Costly, Unworkable

Amnesty for unlawful immigrants is unpopular with the American people because it is unfair, costly, and it won’t work. It is unfair to those who navigated our sometimes overly complex legal immigration system or decided to respect our laws and not enter or stay unlawfully.  It is costly because legalized immigrants will become eligible for the full complement of government welfare and retirement programs.

And it will not work because such a policy would encourage future unlawful immigration.  In fact, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the Senate amnesty bill, which had what its proponents said were tough enforcement measures, would allow millions more unlawful immigrants into the United States over the next few decades.

It is unfortunate that amnesty is included in the House Republican leadership’s  “Standards for Immigration Reform.”  Conservatives are rightfully wary of compromising with President Obama on immigration at all when he has shown little inclination to enforce the immigration laws already on the books.  Pushing an unpopular amnesty and trusting the President to enforce the immigration laws in exchange for immediate amnesty is unwise.