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Debunking American Exceptionalism V: Immigration Reform

The Ethics of a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Program

One of the most difficult questions facing America from an ethical point of view is whether illegal immigrants should be sent home and told to go through the proper channels to be given an opportunity to become U.S. citizens or should they be given a 'pathway to citizenship' as part of comprehensive immigration reform. I used to believe the answer to this question was to send them home. Illegal immigrants are just that: they are in the U.S. illegally. Why should they be given an opportunity through a special program developed for them to become U.S. citizens when they broke the law in entering the country illegally?

Ronald Reagan attempted to deal with the problem by signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). The IRCA granted amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants, in return for which:

  1. The government would make a concerted effort to control the borders.
  2. An effective employer verification program would ensure that only legal workers were hired.
  3. One-time amnesty would be granted for people illegally in the U.S.

All three promises were broken. The government has made no serious effort to control our borders. Employers continue knowingly to hire illegal immigrants without any real fear of punishment.  And the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project, is now 11.7 million.

With the passage of time I have found myself examining the issue more carefully from an ethical perspective, not only a legal one. I no longer believe the issue is black and white: to say allowing illegals to stay is either right or wrong.

The ethical dimension of the problem is due to the lengthy period of time during which millions of illegal immigrants have been in “citizenship status limbo.” The fact that 27 years have passed since the IRCA was signed into law is troublesome and it illustrates my fifth reason for the decline in ‘American Exceptionalism,’ an issue I have blogged about for the past month.

An exceptional country manages to deal with difficult problems in less than 27 years, and with no end in sight to resolve the dilemma. Our failure to do so illustrates the ‘kick the can down the road’ mentality that has developed in the U.S. Our lawmakers seem to prefer not solving pressing problems – whether its immigration reform, social security/Medicare reform, or a declining education system -- and leaving it for future generations to deal with.

The underlying ethical issue is whether it is fair to illegal immigrants who have been allowed by our country to live in the U.S., work in the U.S., educate their children in the U.S., and raise families in the U.S. to send them home and told to apply for citizenship in accordance with the law.  Don’t we have an ethical obligation to illegals that transcends legalities because we have, perhaps unwittingly, made a commitment to allow them to stay in the U.S., raise their families here, earn a living here, and become de facto citizens albeit with an ethical obligation to comply with designated conditions to become prospective citizens?

Another ethical issue is the practicality of mass deportation of persons here illegally, which is virtually impossible. 

While there have been different proposals over the years, the program that has the most support among analysts and the American public involves getting  right with the law under the following components:

  • Undocumented immigrants must register with the government and undergo background checks in order to qualify for the program.  Those who do not qualify would go through regular removal procedures.
  • Other components of earned legalization include learning English, if they haven’t already; creating a record of paying taxes; possessing no criminal record, and paying fines and fees as decided by Congress.
  • If they met all of the requirements, registered individuals and their immediate family members would be allowed to apply for legal status and become legal permanent residents and eventually U.S. citizens.

There is a concept in ethics known as ‘ethical legalism,’ which means following the law is not always the most ethical thing to do. There are situations where the ethics of a matter must be given priority over legalities. I believe the immigration/citizenship issue is one such case.

The ethical issue is fairness/fair treatment: equals should be treated equally and unequals, unequally. By allowing illegals to stay here for 27 years, I believe we have an ethical obligation to treat them differently than say an illegal that crosses the border now or, perhaps, some designated time period in the past. We should provide a pathway to citizenship for long-term illegals.

Fairness cuts both ways. Undocumented citizens that have followed the rules in applying for full citizenship and have been waiting for years should be treated differently than long-term illegals and given a quicker passage to citizenship – accelerate the process for those who followed our laws: who did the right thing.

The immigration issue has been studied by a variety of organizations and reports issued on the complex topic. I recognize that different organizations have different political agendas and the results of a survey conducted by one should be questioned because of the organization's motivation for doing the study. That said, The Heritage Foundatrion issues s report titled The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer.

According to the report, in 2010, the average unlawful immigrant household received around $24,721 in government benefits and services while paying some $10,334 in taxes. This generated an average annual fiscal deficit (benefits received minus taxes paid) of around $14,387 per household. This cost had to be borne by U.S. taxpayers. Amnesty would provide unlawful households with access to over 80 means-tested welfare programs, Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare. The fiscal deficit for each household would soar.

Immigration reform issue should not be considered solely in financial terms. It is an ethical issue first and foremost. I believe we, as a country, have an ethical obligation to immigrants caught in limbo to develop a fair program that requires predetermined steps to citizenship while, at the same time, fast-tracking the pathway for immigrants who are legally attempting to become citizens and have gone about it the right way.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 2, 2013