Is Amnesty the Way to Go?

13 Aug. 2001
Sent to the Washington Post (not published)
To the Editor
[Re. “Why Amnesty is the Wrong Way to Go,” Aug. 12, 1B]

Peter Skerry maintains that amnesty is the wrong way to go, but does not explain what destination he is trying to arrive at.

He begins by disputing the idea that illegal immigrants live in fear of deportation and consequently are exploited by employers. His evidence? A group of illegal immigrants protesting mistreatment by an employer, an illegal immigrant meeting with federal officials to protest mistreatment by employers, and illegal immigrants organizing into a labor union (allegedly saving the labor movement from extinction).

Apparently finding the courage to speak out disqualifies your speech. If an illegal immigrant risks deportation by publicly addressing labor abuses, those abuses do not exist. The correct course, no doubt, would be to remain silent and count on Prof. Skerry to uncover such problems. (Later in his column he quotes Linda Chavez supporting amnesty, and no doubt counts on us to recall without prompting her firsthand knowledge of undocumented workers’ lack of exploitation.)

Skerry proceeds to tell us that amnesty would be a mistake, apparently because he thinks immigrants already, in effect, have it. However, Skerry simultaneously admits that they do not and acknowledges that they live in danger of deportation:

“Amnesty – the granting of formal legal status to those who live here illegally and are therefore subject to deportation – is being pushed by those who stand to benefit the most from it, chiefly immigrant advocates, unions, and the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox.”

So, apparently amnesty, although it would not change anything for workers, would have some kind of effect. But what, if not a change in status for workers? Skerry tries to imply that “immigrant advocates” are some sort of special-interest group akin to oil producers or toaster manufacturers representing their own personal greed. But he does not specify what they would gain from amnesty other than the benefits for immigrants the quest for which define them as immigrant advocates.

Similarly, unions would benefit, yes, but only because they could better organize workers who possessed the limited legal rights afforded other U.S. workers. If you are opposed to labor organizing, you will be opposed to anything that “benefits unions,” but it is misleading to suggest that expanding workers’ rights so that they have the option to organize is equivalent to a corporate welfare pork barrel payoff.

And the President of Mexico? Would he benefit in some other way than by pleasing the people of Mexico? Skerry does not explain how.

Skerry does not maintain that amnesty offers nothing to undocumented workers, only that it offers “less than meets the eye,” and that to other “anxious” Americans, it offers “a poke in the eye.” But what would these anxious Americans allegedly prefer? If the answer is deportation, then the contrast with amnesty is pretty stark, whoever’s eyes we’re looking through. If the answer is effective amnesty in all but name, then I am not convinced these fictional people are all that anxious. If the answer is second-class status with restricted labor rights, then I maintain such a solution is damaging to this society and everyone in it, including those who must try to defend it in print while denying its existence.

Skerry depicts a “guest worker program” (which, as envisioned by the Bush administration, would clearly amount to legalized second-class status) as a middle ground that would be unacceptable if it involved eventual amnesty for any of the “guests.” The problem with amnesty, he explains, is that it is compassionate.

Skerry admits that undocumented workers earn less money, but he tells us that some unspecified “research” blames this on their youth, education level, and short stints with employers, on – in short – the amount of time they’ve been here. The longer they’re here, he says, the better they do. One of the benefits of time, he adds, is increased skill at avoiding the INS (but, not, apparently, the “researchers”). But if avoiding the INS is evidence of the lack of a problem, then wouldn’t amnesty logically accomplish

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