Senate's Compromise on Immigration: Path to Amnesty for Up to 10 Million

The Senate’s compromise on immigration reform is a problematic approach to the issue of illegal immigration. Brokered by Senators Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.), the compromise deal has the following broad provisions:

  • Likely amnesty for immigrants in country five or more years: These individuals are not required to leave the country and could apply for legal status and citizenship while in the United States.
  • Visas for immigrants in country between two and five years: They must report to one of 16 "ports of entry" and pick up a temporary work visa. However, this would not necessarily be a temporary-worker program, as these immigrants could be eligible for a green card after their worker visas expire.
  • Deportation for immigrants in country less than two years: They would not be allowed to seek legal status in the United States and would therefore have to leave the country and apply for a temporary work visa from their home countries.

While this approach is better than amnesty for all, it still would be a road to amnesty for most immigrants who are in the United States illegally. This policy would encourage future illegal immigration while rewarding those who have violated America’s laws.

Amnesty for Most

A quick review of statistics on illegal immigrants from the Pew Hispanic Center indicates how many individuals the Senate compromise would affect:

In the U.S.
Less than two years 1.7 million
Between two and five years 2.5 million
More than five years 7.7 million
Total 11.9 million

These numbers, however, understate the potential effect of the proposed compromise. Under the compromise, many immigrants’ spouses and children now outside of the country would likely receive green cards. Therefore, the actual number of immigrants could be substantially higher.

More than 60 percent of the current undocumented population — those here illegally more than five years — would be on their way to full amnesty under the Senate compromise. They could remain in the United States and would be eligible for a green card. They would, however, be required to pass a background check, work and pay taxes, and pay a $2,000 fine, among other requirements.

Illegal immigrants who have been in the United States between two and five years would also be eligible for amnesty, and they would only have to leave the country to pick up temporary visas. A better policy would require exit from the country to apply for a temporary-worker visa that puts them on equal footing with others who want to come to the United States and work.

Not only would mid-term illegal immigrants be given priority to stay in the United States and work, but they also would be given priority in applying for green cards over future legal immigrants. This provision is problematic because it rewards illegal immigrants for breaking the law and being here illegally in the first place. Also — and perhaps contrary to perception — this is not a temporary program. Rather, it is a path to citizenship once the temporary-worker visa expires.

Only short-term immigrants would not receive amnesty under the Hagel/Martinez compromise. They would be required to return to their home countries to apply for work visas. Because there is no path to amnesty, this is the most desirable part of the proposal; it would require immigrants to stop breaking the law — that is, to leave the country — before being admitted legally.

In general, the Hagel/Martinez approach is better than the Senate Judiciary Committee bill, which would provide amnesty for most, if not all, illegal immigrants.

Boost Security, Reject Amnesty

An illegal immigrant should have to leave the country before he or she can apply for a temporary work visa and certainly before he or she can begin the process of becoming a citizen. Under the compromise approach, illegal immigrants could leave the country to apply at one of the 16 ports of entry, but that should not guarantee re-entry into the United States. America must always reserve the right to deny entry to anyone who is a criminal or a security risk.

Providing amnesty for the long-term undocumented individuals does not respect the rule of law and would only encourage more illegal behavior in the future. As its deliberations on immigration continue, the Senate should abandon any approach that amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants.