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Reviewing the Amnesty Debate

What are the reasons for and against granting amnesty to illegal aliens?

December 18, 2008

What are the reasons for and against granting amnesty to illegal aliens?

Reasons for amnesty

  • 1. Abuse: Granting legalization will reduce abuses against illegal aliens, who are often afraid to report crimes and maltreatment against them for fear of being deported.
  • 2. Compassion: As most of the illegal aliens are simply seeking work in order to better the lives of their families and to escape from poverty, compassion should be extended to them by permitting them to become legal residents.
  • 3. Costs: In addition to the logistical problems, considerable financial costs are incurred in sending illegal aliens back to their home countries.
  • 4. Crime: Legalization of illegal aliens will reduce crime because they will be more willing to come forward to report crimes to the authorities.
  • 5. Economics: In addition to paying taxes, many important sectors of the economy, especially agriculture, depend on the labor of illegal aliens, who often work on tasks that natives eschew.
  • 6. Entitlement: As they have resided, worked and contributed to their new communities for years, illegal aliens should be entitled to remain in the country legally and to apply for citizenship.
  • 7. Exploitation: As they fear being reported to the authorities and subsequently deported, illegal aliens are reluctant to complain about labor exploitation and sub-standard working conditions.
  • 8. Fairness: It would be unfair to deport these people back to their home countries, which are often plagued by poverty, lack of opportunity, political instability and armed conflict.
  • 9. Family: Many of the illegal aliens have family members, including children, who are citizens or legal residents in the country. Every effort should be made to keep families intact, which is in the best interests of the children and society at large.
  • 10. Logistics: It is an enormously difficult undertaking for government authorities to identify, locate and deport illegal aliens.
  • 11. Rights: It would be a violation of basic human rights to expel people seeking to improve their lives simply because they lack the legal documents permitting them to remain in their new homes.
  • 12. Security: It is in the national interests of the country to permit legalization and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, as it strengthens and revitalizes the nation — and also increases its overall security.

Reasons against amnesty

  • 1. Borders: Amnesty increases the pressures for further illegal immigration at the nation’s borders.
  • 2. Costs: It will be costly to taxpayers to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, especially with regard to providing education, health care, welfare and other social services.
  • 3. Crime: Amnesty encourages trafficking and smuggling of illegal aliens who are willing to pay high prices to enter a country that periodically grants amnesty for illegal immigration.
  • 4. Environment: Granting amnesty increases the size of a nation’s population, thereby negatively impacting its environment.
  • 5. Fairness: Providing amnesty to illegal aliens penalizes legal aliens who have properly followed the rules — and delays the immigration of others patiently waiting abroad.
  • 6. Governance: Democratically elected governments ought to respect public opinion, which is opposed to granting amnesty to illegal aliens.
  • 7. Law: As it is clearly unlawful to enter, remain or work in a country without proper governmental authorization, granting amnesty undermines the rule of law among a nation’s citizens.
  • 8. Logistics: Granting amnesty is a costly bureaucratic nightmare and very difficult to implement without corruption at nearly every stage of the process (e.g., fraud, intimidation, bribes, etc.).
  • 9. Rewards: Granting amnesty to illegal aliens rewards unlawful behavior and encourages others, especially family and community members, to sneak into the country in hopes of a future amnesty, which often happens not too long after the initial amnesty is granted.
  • 10. Security: As illegal aliens enter or reside unlawfully without proper initial security clearance and health screening, granting amnesty threatens national security and public health.
  • 11. Wages: Amnesty of illegal aliens depresses the wages of native and lawful workers by increasing the supply of workers, many of whom are willing to work for much less than the prevailing wages.
  • 12. Trust: Granting amnesty to illegal aliens undermines the public trust, as past amnesties were to be “the last.”

Pros and cons

From the above enumeration, one finds several identical concerns for and against amnesty or legalization, such as costs, crime, fairness and security.

These concerns, however, are interpreted in vastly different ways. For some, granting amnesty will be costly to taxpayers, while for others denying legalization will be costly to the nation.

Also, while some believe that the security of the nation is threatened by amnesty, others feel that national security is enhanced with legalization.

Areas of consensus

With regard to the undesirability of illegal immigration, widespread agreement exists among nations and much of the public. Few, if any, responsible authorities, organizations or officials openly advocate or support illegal immigration, as this would clearly be in violation of national laws and international norms.

However, views differ considerably on how to deal with those unlawfully residing or working in a country. The old adage “Where you stand depends on where you sit” seems apropos in this instance.

Positions or stands on amnesty are to a great extent determined by the specific circumstances in which nations, organizations and communities find themselves. Sending countries, agricultural employers and ethnic associations, for example, are likely to be supportive of legalization because it is believed to be in their respective interests (e.g., remittances, low-wage unskilled labor and ethnic solidarity).

In contrast, receiving countries, low-wage workers and nativist citizen groups, for instance, are likely to oppose amnesty, again because it is seen as not in their respective interests (e.g., governance, depressed wages and acculturation).

Nations generally recognize that the prevention of illegal immigration may be facilitated by interstate cooperation to address its root causes.

Important factors contributing to illegal migration include international economic imbalances, poverty and environmental degradation, the absence of peace, security and basic human rights. Progress in overcoming some of these problems will contribute to making the choice of remaining in one’s country a viable option, and this in turn will help reduce the pressures to resort to illegal migration.

Development efforts may also be complemented with domestic and overseas programs to make potential migrants aware of the legal conditions of entry, residence and employment in receiving countries.

Ongoing challenge

Despite improved interstate cooperation, development programs and public information campaigns, illegal immigration is expected to persist for the foreseeable future. On the one hand, the more developed regions, many of which are declining in size and aging rapidly, will continue to attract foreign workers.

On the other hand, the populations of the less developed regions are growing relatively rapidly, with many of working age facing serious difficulties finding gainful employment. As a result, increasing numbers of these people are likely to be heading to the comparatively wealthier countries in both the North and South.

While some of these migrants will have documents permitting legal entry, large numbers will lack legal authorization to enter, remain or work in the receiving country.

Addressing the presence of these men, women and children who have illegally taken up residence in a country remains a major challenge for the international community of nations in the 21st century.

Editors Note: Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, is director of research at the Center for Migration Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Migration Studies.


Addressing the presence of illegal immigrants remains a major challenge for the international community of nations in the 21st century.

Nations generally recognize that the prevention of illegal immigration may be facilitated by interstate cooperation to address its root causes.