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Amnesty for America’s Immigrants: A Viable Change to the Status Quo?

April 04, 2014
It is timely for us to clarify exactly what “amnesty” means, what the current status of immigration legislation is in Congress, and what amnesty for illegal immigrants would mean for the United States

Author: Amanda Urban, W’16

It is estimated that there are around 11.7 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States (Passel, Cohn, and Gonzalez-Barrera).  As quoted in the Washington Post:

·          “nearly two-thirds [of illegal immigrants] have been here for more than a decade,

·           more than 28 percent arrived more than 15 years ago

·           almost half have children, and

·           more than 80 percent of those 5.5 million children were born here and are U.S. citizens.” (Editorial).

Over the past couple of decades, we have watched one long, protracted battle over how to handle illegal immigrants in the U.S.  With the Senate’s passage of the amnesty-focused immigration bill (known as S.744) in 2013, these debates are as divisive as ever.  Unfortunately, misconceptions, and inaccuracies, have not just permeated in this debate— they have saturated it.  As a result, it is timely for us to clarify exactly what “amnesty” means, what the current status of immigration legislation is in Congress, and what amnesty for illegal immigrants would mean for the United States.

What does “amnesty” for illegal immigrants mean?

“Amnesty” is generally defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning to “grant an official pardon to” an offender—in this case, an illegal immigrant.  However, because “amnesty” is also a highly politicized term, we will stick with the definition provided by the Senate in their summer 2013 immigration bill. According to the Senate, the amnesty process begins when an undocumented alien becomes registered through the Registered Provisional Immigrant program (RPI).  An immigrant can apply for provisional legal status, if he has lived in the U.S. since December 2011, has minimal or no criminal record, pays taxes, can pass a background check and pay the application fees, as well as a $1,000 penalty for having resided illegally in the U.S.  As provisional residents, RPIs do not have access to federal public benefits. In extreme cases, RPIs must also show continuous employment to illustrate that they can, and will, be a productive member of society (“A Guide”).

After being an RPI for at least 10 years, an immigrant can apply for a “green card,” which would grant them Lawful Permanent Residence status in the United States.  The requirements for becoming a permanent resident are similar to the application process for immigrants applying to become RPIs.  But, permanent resident applicants must also meet English proficiency requirements, pass more background checks, pay another $1,000 penalty fee, and more application fees.  Once they have become a permanent resident, an immigrant must wait at least three more years to apply for citizenship status (“A Guide”).

Immigrants who moved to the United States when they were under 15 years old (also referred to as “DREAMers”), or have been continuously employed as agricultural workers, can be placed on an accelerated track to become citizens.  However, these applicants must still fulfill the same requirements as the RPI candidates, along with at least two years of postsecondary education or honorable military service (“A Guide”).

What is the current state of amnesty and immigration reform?

In November 2013, House Speaker John Boehner stated that Republican leaders “have no intention of ever going to conference” on the Senate bill.  He further noted that the Republican caucus intends to pass several smaller bills that will address immigration reform (Fuller).  The goal of the smaller-bill approach would be to debate each issue in the current large bill separately (such as border security), so that the Republicans would have more ability than they currently do with the omnibus reform bill to control the debate.  Without support from the House, S.744 will not become law.

Republicans are generally painted as a party of people who are against amnesty bills for current illegal residents.  They are known for favoring stronger border controls and “self-deportation”— a systematic effort to ensure that regulations, citizenship checks (such as required citizenship as a condition of employment), and punishments are so strict that immigrants voluntarily choose to return to their country of origin.  This strategy, championed by Republicans like Mitt Romney, is considered a “miserable” tactic, and unlikely to work long term (Editorial).

What are the benefits or drawbacks of allowing amnesty?

Ultimately, there are more benefits than drawbacks regarding illegal immigration amnesty.  The arguments against immigration amnesty are riddled with holes.  For example, the nation’s tax revenues could be increased, and the national deficit decreased, by allowing immigrants who are currently living in the shadows to become full-fledged citizens of the U.S.  Moreover, evidence shows that immigrants do not take jobs from native-born Americans; rather, they fill the occupational holes left due to demographic changes in the native-born population (“10 Myths”).

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) claims that if S.744 passes through the House, and becomes law, we will see a modest reduction in the number of individuals illegally immigrating to the United States from years 2013 to 2033.  While the bill is only projected to make modest changes to illegal immigration in the U.S., it would certainly be a step in the right direction (“S.744”).  Similarly, the CBO estimates that if the bill becomes a law, the federal deficit will not experience any short-term increases through the year 2023.  Between 2024 and 2033, CBO estimates a $300 billion decrease in the deficit as a result of the legislation (“S.744”).

Overall, CBO believes that once the Senate’s amnesty bill for current immigrants takes full effect, the size of the labor and employment force will increase, capital investments will be boosted, and labor productivity will increase.  The key drawbacks of the bill, however, are that these changes will cause a glut of cheap labor, which could result in slightly higher unemployment and lower average wages in the short term.  Based on the current minimum wage, CBO expects that this short-term wage decrease in the competitive labor market would only last about 12 years before the system levels itself and wages return to normal rates (“S.744”).

On the contrary, what better alternative exists?  If self-deportation does not work, and there is no way to make “mass roundups and deportations” happen, we are left with the choice of remaining with the highly-criticized status quo, or a de novo proposal for the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in America.  Given how large and influential the scope of this issue has become, we cannot afford to wait to clarify our country’s position on immigration.  Now is the time for us to address this growing concern and give amnesty the consideration it deserves.


“A Guide to S.744: Understanding the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill.” Immigration Policy Center. American Immigration Council, June 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Fuller, Matt. “Boehner Says No to Conference With Senate Immigration Bill.” Web log post. 218. Roll Call, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

Editorial Board. “The ‘Self-Deportation’ Fantasy.” Editorial. Washington Post 28 Jan. 2012: n. pag. Washington Post. 28 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Passel, Jeffrey S., D’Vera Cohn, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. “Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed.” Pew Hispanic Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

S. 744, Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Rep. Congressional Budget Office, 18 June 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Sreedhar, Anjana. “Immigration Reform 2013: Where Are the Most Undocumented Immigrants From?” PolicyMic. Mic Network Inc., 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

“10 Myths About Immigration.” Teaching Tolerance. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.



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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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