During last week's marathon trip to Latin America President George Bush failed to deliver to Mexico's president Vicente Fox a long-promised gift a signed and sealed illegal immigrant amnesty bill. The proposal would provide amnesty for hundreds of thousands of aliens who have overstayed their visas and are residing illegally in the United States.
Before September 11, an amnesty bill appeared to be a certainty. Bush touted it as an act of compassion toward Mexico, an act that could only lead to better relations with our southern neighbors. Fox, of course, has a strong interest in the amnesty bill. Immigration to the U.S. provides Mexico with a much needed outlet for Mexico's desperate and malcontent poor. Illegal alien workers also provide much needed revenue for the Mexican economy, sending billions of dollars each year back to Mexico. Amnesty is well designed to help cover for Fox's dismal economic performance, particularly his failure to create the hundreds of thousands of jobs he promised.
At the same time, Mexico is making extraordinary efforts to seal its southern borders with Guatemala and Belize. Mexico clearly recognizes the dangers to its internal politics and economy posed by illegal immigration from its southern neighbors no compassion there.
September's terrorist acts, however, taught Americans or so it seemed that illegal immigration should not be treated casually. Indeed, strident calls for tightening the border were heard from all quarters. And, for all intents and purposes, the border with Mexico was closed for a short period with remarkable effects on the flow of illegal aliens as well as illegal drugs.
Another amnesty, such as the one that occurred in 1986, will certainly be a spur to more illegal immigration. If there have been two amnesties who can doubt that there will be more? These bad precedents will create bad habits. Indeed they already have.
Amnesty for illegal aliens is simply a reward for law-breaking. No system depending on a strict regard for the rule of law can treat law-breaking so lightly. This is particularly true when those who are attempting to enter the country legally are forced to wait years and undergo massive bureaucratic battles. Amnesty is something we should always regard with deep suspicion because it excuses law-breakers. Amnesty is appropriate only when it serves the dignity of the law. When the law, contrary to its intent, has worked an injustice, amnesty might be an appropriate remedy. But when amnesty is used merely to excuse law-breaking or for cynical political purposes it directly undermines the rule of law.
Some years ago the Congress considered a bill that would have withdrawn birth-right citizenship for children born to illegal alien parents. When the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868 it defined American citizenship for the first time. It included all who were born or naturalized in theUnited States and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. It was widely understood at the time that Indians would not become citizens by the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment because they owed allegiance to their tribes and therefore did not fall under the United States' "jurisdiction" which means not just legal obligations and protections, but also a patriotic attachment to the Constitution and founding principles of the nation.
Thus Indians born in the United States did not become citizens by that fact alone. Today, we confer automatically on the children of illegal aliens a status that was refused to Native Persons. How we came to hold this view is something of a mystery to constitutional scholars since there is no Supreme Court case on point. Indians became citizens when laws were passed by Congress bringing them within the jurisdiction of the United States. Congress could pass similar laws excluding children of illegal aliens from automatic citizenship, thereby depriving illegal aliens of a powerful incentive to break American laws.
Latino leaders in the Democratic party complained that Bush's amnesty plan and his much publicized trip to Latin America were merely cynical ploys to curry favor with Latino voters. The vehemence of the Democratic response indicates that they may be concerned that Bush is succeeding. The Democratic response may itself be too cynical. Whether cynical or not, the idea that amnesty is an act of compassion is certainly misplaced.