Amnesty and Continued Low Skill Immigration Will Substantially Raise Welfare Costs and Poverty

May 12, 2006

This paper focuses on the net fiscal effects of immigration with particular emphasis on the fiscal effects of low skill immigration. The fiscal effects of immigration are only one aspect of the impact of immigration. immigration also has social, political, and economic effects. In particular, the economic effects of immigration have been heavily researched with differing results. These economic effects lie beyond the scope of this paper.

Overall, immigration is a net fiscal positive to the government's budget in the long run: the taxes immigrants pay exceed the costs of the services they receive. However, the fiscal impact of immigrants varies strongly according to immigrants' education level. College-educated immigrants are likely to be strong contributors to the government's finances, with their taxes exceeding the government's costs. By contrast, immigrants with low education levels are likely to be a fiscal drain on other taxpayers. This is important because half of all adult illegal immigrants in the U.S. have less than a high school education. In addition, recent immigrants have high levels of out-of-wedlock childbearing, which increases welfare costs and poverty.

An immigration plan proposed by Senators Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), the Comprehensive immigration Reform Act (CIRA, S. 2611) would provide Amnesty to 9 to 10 million illegal immigrants and put them on a path to citizenship. Once these individuals become citizens, the net additional cost to the federal government of benefits for these individuals will be around $16 billion per year. Further, once an illegal immigrant becomes a citizen, he has the right to bring his parents to live in the U.S. The parents, in turn, may become citizens. The long-term cost of government benefits to the parents of 10 million recipients of Amnesty could be $30 billion per year or more. In the long run, S. 2611, if enacted, would be the largest expansion of the welfare state in 35 years.

Current Trends in immigration

Over the last 40 years, immigration into the United States has surged. Our nation is now experiencing a second "great migration" similar to the great waves of immigrants that transformed America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2004, an estimated 35.7 million foreign-born persons lived in the U.S. While in 1970 one person in twenty was foreign born, by 2004 the number had risen to one in eight.

About one-third of all foreign-born persons in the U.S. are illegal aliens. There are between 10 and 12 million illegal aliens currently living in the U.S.[1] Illegal aliens now comprise 3 to 4 percent of the total U.S. population. Each year approximately 1.3 million new immigrants enter the U.S.[2] Some 700,000 of these entrants are illegal.[3]

One-third of all foreign-born persons in the U.S. are Mexican. Overall, the number of Mexicans in the U.S. has increased from 760,000 in 1970 to 10.6 million in 2004. Nine percent of all Mexicans now reside in the U.S.[4] Over half of all Mexicans in the U.S. are illegal immigrants,[5] and in the last decade 80 to 85 percent of the inflow of Mexicans into the U.S. has been illegal.[6]

The public generally perceives illegals to be unattached single men. This is, in fact, not the case. Some 44 percent of adult illegals are women. While illegal men work slightly more than native-born men, illegal women work less. Among female illegals, some 56 percent work, compared to 73 percent among native-born women of comparable age.[7] As well, Mexican women emigrating to the U.S. have a considerably higher fertility rate than women remaining in Mexico.[8]

Immigrants and education

On average, immigrants have low education levels relative to native-born U.S. citizens. One-quarter of legal adult immigrants lack a high school degree, compared to 9 percent among the native-born population. However, there is a well educated sub-group within the legal immigrant population. Some 32 percent of legal immigrant adults have a college degree, compared to 30 percent of native-born adults.[9]

The education levels of illegal aliens are lower than those of legal immigrants. Half of all adult illegal immigrants lack a high school degree.[10] Among Latin American and Mexican immigrants, 60 percent lack a high school degree and only 7 percent have a high school diploma. By contrast, among native-born workers in the U.S., only 6 percent have failed to complete high school degrees and nearly a third have a college degree.[11]

Decline in Immigrant Wages

Over the last 40 years the education level of new immigrants has fallen relative to the native population. As the relative education levels of immigrants have declined, so has their earning capacity compared to the general U.S. population. Immigrants arriving in the U.S. around 1960 had wages, at the time of entry, that were just 13 percent less than natives'. In 1965, the nation's immigration law was dramatically changed, and from 1990 on, illegal immigration surged. The result was a decline in the relative skill levels of new immigrants. By 1998, new immigrants had an average entry wage that was 34 percent less than natives'.[12] Because of their lower education levels, illegal immigrants' wages would have been even lower.

The low-wage status of recent illegal immigrants can be illustrated by the wages of recent immigrants from Mexico, a majority of whom have entered the U.S. illegally. In 2000, the median weekly wage of a first-generation Mexican immigrant was $323. This was 54 percent of the corresponding wage for non-Hispanic whites in the general population.[13]

Historically, the relative wages of recent immigrants have risen after entry as immigrants gained experience in the labor market. For example, immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s saw their relative wages rise by 10 percentage points compared to natives' wages during their first 20 years in the country. But in recent years, this modest catch up effect has diminished. Immigrants who arrived in the late 1980s actually saw their relative wages shrink in the 1990s.[14]

immigration and welfare Dependence

welfare may be defined as means-tested aid programs: these programs provide cash, non-cash, and social service assistance that is limited to low-income households. The major means-tested programs include Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, public housing, the earned income Credit, and Medicaid. Historically, recent immigrants were less likely to receive welfare than native-born Americans. But over the last thirty years, this historic pattern has reversed. As the relative education levels of immigrants fell, their tendency to receive welfare benefits increased. By the late 1990s immigrant households were fifty percent more likely to receive means-tested aid than native-born households.[15] Moreover, immigrants appear to assimilate into welfare use. The longer immigrants live in the U.S., the more likely they are to use welfare.[16]

A large part, but not all, of immigrants' higher welfare use is explained by their low education levels. welfare use also varies by immigrants' national origin. For example, in the late 1990s, 5.6 percent of immigrants from India received means-tested benefits; among Mexican immigrants the figure was 34.1 percent; and for immigrants from the Dominican Republic the figure was 54.9 percent.[17] Ethnic differences in the propensity to receive welfare that appear among first-generation immigrants persist strongly in the second generation.[18] The relatively high use of welfare among Mexicans has significant implications for current proposals to grant Amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Chart 1

Some 80 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico and Latin America.[19] (See Chart 1) Historically, Hispanics in America have had very high levels of welfare use. Chart 2 shows receipt of aid from major welfare programs by different ethnic groups in 1999; the programs covered are Medicaid, Food Stamps, public housing, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, General Assistance, and Supplemental Security Income.[20] As the chart shows, Hispanics were almost three times more likely to receive welfare than non-Hispanic whites. In addition, among families that received aid, the cost of the aid received was 40 percent higher for Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.[21] Putting together the greater probability of receiving welfare with the greater cost of welfare per family means that, on average, Hispanic families received four times more welfare per family than white non-Hispanics.

Part, but not all, of this high level of welfare use by Hispanics can be explained by background factors such as family structure. [22] It seems likely that, if Hispanic illegal immigrants are given permanent residence and citizenship, they and their children will likely assimilate into the culture of high welfare use that characterizes Hispanics in the U.S. This would impose significant costs on taxpayers and society as a whole.

Chart 2

welfare use can also be measured by immigration status. In general, immigrant households are about fifty percent more likely to use welfare than native-born households.[23] Immigrants with less education are more likely to use welfare.

Chart 3

The potential welfare costs of low-skill immigration and Amnesty for current illegal immigrants can be assessed by looking at the welfare utilization rates for current low-skill immigrants. As Chart 3 shows, immigrants without a high school degree (both lawful and unlawful) are two-and-a-half times more likely to use welfare than native-born individuals.[24] This underscores the high potential welfare costs of giving Amnesty to illegal immigrants.

All categories of high school dropouts have a high utilization of welfare. Immigrants who have less than a high school degree are slightly more likely to use welfare than native-born dropouts. legal immigrants who are high school dropouts are slightly more likely to use welfare than native-born dropouts.[25] Illegal immigrant dropouts, however, are less likely to use welfare than native-born dropouts mainly because they are ineligible for many welfare programs. With Amnesty, current illegal immigrants' welfare use would likely rise to the level of lawful immigrants with similar education levels.

Illegal immigration and poverty

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 4.7 million children of illegal immigrant parents currently live in the U.S.[26] Some 37 percent of these children are poor.[27] While children of illegal immigrant parents comprise around 6 percent of all children in the U.S., they are 11.8 percent of all poor children.[28]

This high level of child poverty among illegal immigrants in the U.S. is, in part, due to low education levels and low wages. It is also linked to the decline in marriage among Hispanics in the U.S. Within this group, 45 percent of children are born out of wedlock.[29] (See Table 1.) Among foreign-born Hispanics the rate is 42.3 percent.[30] By contrast, the out-of-wedlock birth rate for non-Hispanic whites is 23.4 percent.[31] The birth rate for Hispanic teens is higher than for black teens.[32] While the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks has remained flat for the last decade, it has risen steadily for Hispanics.[33] These figures are important because, as noted, some 80 percent of illegal aliens come from Mexico and Latin America.[34]

Table 1

In general, children born and raised outside of marriage are seven times more likely to live in poverty than children born and raised by married couples. Children born out of wedlock are also more likely to be on welfare, to have lower educational achievement, to have emotional problems, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to become involved in crime.[35]

poverty is also more common among adult illegal immigrants, who are twice as likely to be poor as are native-born adults. Some 27 percent of all adult illegal immigrants are poor, compared to 13 percent of native-born adults.[36]

Economic and Social Assimilation of Illegal Immigrant Offspring

One important question is the future economic status of the children and grandchildren of current illegal immigrants, assuming those offspring remain in the U.S. While we obviously do not have data on future economic status, we may obtain a strong indication of future outcomes by examining the educational attainment of offspring of recent Mexican immigrants. Some 57 percent of current illegal immigrants come from Mexico, and about half of Mexicans currently in the U.S. are here illegally.[37]

First-generation Mexican immigrants are individuals born in Mexico who have entered the U.S. In 2000, some 70 percent of first-generation Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal) lacked a high school degree. Second-generation Mexicans may be defined as individuals born in the U.S. who have at least one parent born in Mexico. Second-generation Mexican immigrants (individuals born in the U.S. who have at least one parent born in Mexico) have greatly improved educational outcomes but still fall well short of the general U.S. population. Some 25 percent of second-generation Mexicans in the U.S. fail to complete high school. By contrast, the high school drop out rate is 8.6 percent among non-Hispanic whites and 17.2 percent among blacks. Critically, the educational attainment of third-generation Mexicans (those of Mexican ancestry with both parents born in the U.S.) improves little relative to the second generation. Some 21 percent of third-generation Mexicans are high school dropouts.[38] Similarly, the rate of college attendance among second-generation Mexicans is lower than for black Americans and about two-thirds of the level for non-Hispanic whites; moreover, college attendance does not improve in the third generation.[39]

These data indicate that the offspring of illegal Hispanic immigrants are likely to have lower rates of educational attainment and higher rates of school failure compared to the non-Hispanic U.S. population. High rates of school failure coupled with high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing are strong predictors of future poverty and welfare dependence.

immigration and crime

Historically, immigrant populations have had lower crime rates than native-born populations. For example, in 1991, the overall crime and incarceration rate for non-citizens was slightly lower than for citizens. Strikingly, imprisonment for violent crime was half as likely for non-citizens as for citizens.[40]

On the other hand, the crime rate among Hispanics in the U.S. is high. Age-specific incarceration rates (prisoners per 100,000 residents in the same age group in the general population) among Hispanics in federal and state prisons are two to two-and-a-half times higher than among non-Hispanic whites.[41] Relatively little of this difference appears to be due to immigration violations.[42]

Illegal immigrants are overwhelmingly Hispanic. It is possible that, over time, Hispanic immigrants and their children may assimilate the higher crime rates that characterize the low-income Hispanic population in the U.S. as a whole.[43] If this were to occur, then policies that would give illegal immigrants permanent residence through Amnesty, as well as policies which would permit a continuing influx of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants each year, would increase crime in the long term.

The Fiscal Impact of immigration

One important question is the fiscal impact of immigration (both legal and illegal). Policymakers must ensure that the interaction of welfare and immigration policy does not expand the welfare-dependent population, which would hinder rather than help immigrants and impose large costs on American society. This means that immigrants should be net contributors to government: the taxes they pay should exceed the cost of the benefits they receive.

In calculating the fiscal impact of an individual or family, it is necessary to distinguish between public goods and private goods. Public goods do not require additional spending to accommodate new residents.[44] The clearest examples of government public goods are national defense and medical and scientific research. The entry of millions of immigrants will not raise costs or diminish the value of these public goods to the general population.

Other government services are private goods; use of these by one person precludes or limits use by another. Government private goods include direct personal benefits such as welfare, Social Security benefits,Medicare, and education. Other government private goods are "congestible" goods.[45] These are services that must be expanded in proportion to the population. Government congestible goods include police and fire protection, roads and sewers, parks, libraries, and courts. If these services do not expand as the population expands, there will be a decrease in the quality of service.

An individual makes a positive fiscal contribution when his total taxes paid exceed the direct benefits and congestible goods received by himself and his family.[46]

The Fiscal Impact of Low Skill immigration

The 1997 New Americans study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) examined the fiscal impact of immigration.[47] It found that, within in a single year, the fiscal impact of foreign-born households was negative in the two states studied, New Jersey and California.[48] Measured over the course of a lifetime, the fiscal impact of first-generation immigrants nationwide was also slightly negative.[49] However, when the future earnings and taxes paid by the offspring of the immigrant were counted, the long-term fiscal impact was positive. One commonly cited figure from the report is that the net present value (NPV) of the fiscal impact of the average recent immigrant and his descendents is $83,000.[50]

There are five important caveats about the NAS longitudinal study and its conclusion that in the long term the fiscal impact of immigration is positive. First, the study applies to all recent immigration, not just illegal immigration. Second, the finding that the long-term fiscal impact of immigration is positive applies to the population of immigrants as a whole, not to low-skill immigrants alone. Third, the $83,000 figure is based on the predicted earnings, tax payments, and benefits of an immigrant's descendents over the next 300 years.[51] Fourth, the study does not take into account the growth in out-of-wedlock childbearing among the foreign-born population, which will increase future welfare costs and limit the upward mobility of future generations. Fifth, the assumed educational attainment of the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of immigrants who are high school dropouts or high school graduates seems unreasonably high given the actual attainment of the offspring of recent Mexican and Hispanic immigrants.[52]

The NAS study's 300-year time horizon is highly problematic. Three hundred years ago, the United States did not even exist and British colonists had barely reached the Appalachian Mountains. We cannot reasonably estimate what taxes and benefits will be even 30 years from now, let alone 300.

The NAS study assumes that most people's descendents will eventually regress to the social and economic mean, and thus may make a positive fiscal contribution, if the time horizon is long enough. With similar methods, it seems likely that out-of-wedlock childbearing could be found to have a net positive fiscal value as long as assumed future earnings are projected out 500 or 600 years.

Slight variations to NAS's assumptions greatly affect the projected outcomes. For example, limiting the time horizon to 50 years and raising the assumed interest rate from 3 percent to 4 percent drops the NPV of the average immigrant from around $80,000 to $8,000.[53] Critically, the NAS projections assumed very large tax increases and benefits cuts would begin in 2016 to prevent the federal deficit from rising further relative to GDP. This assumption makes it far easier for future generations to be scored as fiscal contributors. If these large tax hikes and benefit cuts do not occur, then the long-term positive fiscal value of immigration evaporates.[54] Moreover, if future tax hikes and benefit cuts do occur, the exact nature of those changes would likely have a large impact on the findings; this issue is not explored in the NAS study.

Critically, the estimated net fiscal impact of the whole immigrant population has little bearing on the fiscal impact of illegal immigrants, who are primarily low-skilled. As noted, at least 50 percent of illegal immigrants do not have a high school degree. As the NAS report states, "[S]ome groups of immigrants bring net fiscal benefits to natives and others impose net fiscal costs… [I]mmigrants with certain characteristics, such as the elderly and those with little education, may be quite costly."[55]

The NAS report shows that the long-term fiscal impact of immigrants varies dramatically according to the education level of the immigrant. The fiscal impact of immigrants with some college education is positive. The fiscal impact of immigrants with a high school degree varies according to the time horizon used. The fiscal impact of immigrants without a high school degree is negative: benefits received will exceed taxes paid. The net present value of the future fiscal impact of immigrants without a high school degree is negative even when the assumed earnings and taxes of descendents over the next 300 years are included in the calculation.[56]

A final point is that the NAS study's estimates assume that low skill immigration does not reduce the wages of native-born low-skill workers. If low-skill immigration does, in fact, reduce the wages of native-born labor, this would reduce taxes paid and increase welfare expenditures for that group. The fiscal, social, and political implications could be quite large.

The Cost of Amnesty

Federal and state governments currently spend over $500 billion per year on means-tested welfare benefits.[57] Illegal aliens are ineligible for most federal welfare benefits but can receive some assistance through programs such as Medicaid, In addition, native-born children of illegal immigrant parents are citizens and are eligible for all relevant federal welfare benefits.

Granting Amnesty to illegal aliens would have two opposing fiscal effects. On the one hand, it may raise wages and taxes paid by broadening the labor market individuals compete in; it would also increase tax compliance and tax receipts as more work would be performed "on the books,"[58] On the other hand, Amnesty would greatly increase the receipt of welfare, government benefits, and social services. Because illegal immigrant households tend to be low-skill and low-wage, the cost to government could be considerable.

The Center for immigration Studies (CIS) has performed a thorough study of the federal fiscal impacts of amnesty.[59] This study found that illegal immigrant households have low education levels and low wages and currently pay little in taxes. Illegal immigrant households also receive lower levels of federal government benefits. Nonetheless, the study also found that, on average, illegal immigrant families received more in federal benefits than they paid in taxes. [60]

Granting Amnesty would render illegal immigrants eligible for federal benefit programs. The CIS study estimated the additional taxes that would be paid and the additional government costs that would occur as a result of amnesty. It assumed that welfare utilization and tax payments among current illegal immigrants would rise to equal the levels among legally-admitted immigrants of similar national, educational, and demographic backgrounds. If all illegal immigrants were granted Amnesty, federal tax payments would increase by some $3,000 per household, but federal benefits and social services would increase by $8,000 per household. Total federal welfare benefits would reach around $9,500 per household, or $35 billion per year total. The study estimates that the net cost to the federal government of granting Amnesty to some 3.8 million illegal alien households would be around $5,000 per household, for a total federal fiscal cost of $19 billion per year. [61]

Amnesty and the Hagel/Martinez Bill

Senators Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) have proposed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA) to offer Amnesty and citizenship to current illegal aliens (S. 2611). This plan would offer Amnesty and citizenship to between 60 and 85 percent of the nation's current 11.9 million illegal immigrants.

Under the plan, illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. five years or more (60 percent of the total) would be granted immediate amnesty. Illegal immigrants who have been in the country between two and five years (25 percent of the total) would travel to one of 16 "ports of entry" where they would receive work permits that would bestow permanent residence and allow the bearers to become citizens. Overall, the plan is likely to grant citizenship to 85 percent of the current illegal alien population, or some 9 to 10 million individuals.

As noted, illegal aliens in the U.S. have very low education levels: at least half lack a high school education and a third have less than a ninth grade education. Illegal immigrants earn low wages similar to the wages of other low-skill workers in the economy. This means they are prone to poverty and welfare dependence.

Illegal immigrants are currently ineligible for most federal welfare benefits. Granting citizenship would provide eligibility to welfare programs such as the Earned Income Credit, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. This would greatly increase welfare costs. The added government costs can be estimated by assessing government benefits and tax payments among current illegal immigrants compared to government benefits and tax payments among legal immigrants of similar national and educational backgrounds. This comparison shows that granting citizenship to 85 percent of current illegal immigrants would increase net federal fiscal costs by some $16 billion per year. Granting citizenship to 60 percent of current illegal immigrants would increase welfare costs by some $11.4 billion per year.[62]

These costs would not occur immediately. The CIRA plan imposes a prospective six-year waiting period prior to granting legal permanent residence to illegal immigrants. Individuals would wait another five years after receiving permanent residence before becoming citizens. Thus, much of the cost of the plan might be delayed; however, once millions of individuals are put on the path to citizenship there would be enormous (and probably irresistible) political pressure to grant them the same benefits that are available to the general population quickly, rather than enforce a long delay.

In addition, the cost estimates presented above are based on a static analysis that assumes that Amnesty will not alter behavior. In reality, illegal immigrants are likely to have significantly more children once they are permanently settled in the U.S. These children will increase welfare costs and child poverty further..

family Chain Migration

The impact and cost of CIRA would extend well beyond the ten million or so individuals initially granted amnesty. When an individual is granted citizenship, he is given the unrestricted right to bring his spouse, minor children, and parents into the country. Each of these individuals would have the right to become a citizen after he or she has lived in the country five years. Thus, each individual granted Amnesty under CIRA could bring five or more additional immigrants, all of whom could become citizens.

As noted, many of the individuals who would be granted Amnesty under the amendment have families abroad. Illegal immigrants granted permanent residence would have the immediate right to bring spouses and minor children into the country. Once here, the spouses and children would receive government services and have the right to become citizens. The total number of foreign-born persons who would ultimately be granted citizenship under S. 2611 could be far more than 10 million, and if so, government costs would swell far above the $16 billion figure given above.

But the fiscal problem gets worse; when an illegal immigrant has obtained citizenship through the Amnesty process, he or she would have the right to bring his or her parents in the U.S. as permanent lawful residents. (Currently one-tenth of the annual flow of legal immigrants to the U.S. are parents of recent immigrants who have naturalized.) If ten million current illegal immigrants were granted Amnesty and citizenship under CIRA, as many as twenty million foreign born parents would be given the right to immigrate to the U.S. Once in the U.S., the immigrant parents would receive social services and government funded medical care, much of it paid for through the Medicaid disproportionate share program.

These immigrant parents coming to the U.S. would also be eligible to apply for citizenship themselves. On attaining citizenship, most would become eligible for benefits from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid programs, at an average cost of over $18,000 per person per year. While it is true that the language requirements of the citizenship test would serve as a barrier to immigrant parents becoming citizens, the tests are not very difficult and the financial rewards of citizenship would be very great. If only ten percent of the parents of those receiving Amnesty under CIRA became citizens and enrolled in SSI and Medicaid, the extra costs to government would be over $30 billion per year.

Obviously, these costs would not begin for some time, but the long-term potential of Amnesty to raise government spending is quite real.

While no one can predict how many spouses, children, and parents of the beneficiaries of Amnesty would enter the country, the pool of those who could enter is enormous, and the potential long-term government costs would be staggering.

Granting Amnesty is Likely to Further Increase Illegal immigration

The immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 granted Amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens. The primary purpose of the act was to decrease the number of illegal immigrants by limiting their inflow and by legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already here.[63] In fact, the act did nothing to stem the tide of illegal entry. The number of illegal aliens entering the country increased fivefold from around 140,000 per year in the 1980s to 700,000 per year today.

Illegal entries increased dramatically shortly after IRCA went into effect. It seems plausible that the prospect of future Amnesty and citizenship served as a magnet to draw even more illegal immigrants into the country. After all, if the nation granted Amnesty once why wouldn't it do so again?

S. 2611 would repeat IRCA on a much larger scale. This time, nine to ten million illegal immigrants would be granted amnesty. As with IRCA, the bill promises to reduce future illegal entry but contains little policy that would actually accomplish this. The granting of Amnesty to 10 million illegal immigrants is likely to serve as a magnet pulling even greater numbers of aliens into the country in the future.

If enacted, the legislation would spur further increases in the future flow of low-skill migrants. This in turn would increase poverty in America, enlarge the welfare state, and increase social and political tensions.

Permanent "Guest Worker" Program

Finally, CIRA would issue 325,000 new visas per year to "guest workers." The number of visas available could increase by 20 percent annually, reaching two million per year within ten years. By 2017, the guest worker program would have admitted some eight million new workers. Illegal aliens who have been in the country for less than two years would be eligible to become guest workers and would probably be the primary recipients of these supposedly temporary (H2C) visas. Recipients of these visas could bring spouses and children into the country immediately, increasing the number of entrants over ten years well above eight million. Because nearly all of the guest workers and their families would within a few years become eligible for government welfare and other services, the fiscal costs from the program could rival those stemming from the direct Amnesty provisions of the bill.

On the surface, individuals in the guest worker program would be limited to a six-year stay in the U.S. But they would have the option to convert to legal permanent residence (LPR) after four years. This would make them permanent residents with the right to naturalize. In addition, all children born to guest workers would automatically become U.S. citizens. This would make it very unlikely that the parent would ever be forced to leave the country.

As structured, the CIRA guest worker program could, within a decade, double the inflow of legal permanent immigrants into the U.S. Many or most of these immigrants would be low-skill and would thus impose fiscal costs on U.S. taxpayers. It is true that many employers would benefit from additional low-skill laborers; however, if such laborers are granted citizenship and permanent residence, their employment is likely to generate negative externalities that impose costs on the rest of society. A guest worker program that, in fact, provides permanent residence and citizenship would not be beneficial to the nation's finances.

Policy Implications

immigration to the U.S. is a privilege, not a right. Immigrants should be net contributors to the government and society and should not be a fiscal burden on American society. While highly educated immigrants, on average, make positive fiscal contributions, the overall fiscal impact of low-skill immigrants is negative.

Over the last 20 years, around 10 million individuals without a high school degree have entered the United States. Many of these also have a high probability of out-of-wedlock childbearing, a key predictor of poverty and welfare dependence. Unless U.S. immigration policy is changed, these trends are likely to continue. Granting Amnesty to current illegal immigrants exacerbates the problem.

Sound immigration policy should be based on two principles. The first is respect for the rule of law. American citizens should determine who is allowed to enter the country, to become a citizen, and to vote in our elections. Lax border enforcement and the non-enforcement of laws against employing illegal immigrants have encouraged over 10 million individuals to enter the country unlawfully. Past and pending amnesties reward this behavior. Under the current system, decisions about who will live in the U.S. and who will become a citizen tend to be made unilaterally by foreigners. S. 2611 would further undermine the rule of law and put the U.S. on the path of uncontrolled immigration punctuated by recurring amnesties.

Second, recognizing the fact that low-skill immigrants are likely to be a fiscal burden on society, government should increase the average skill and education levels of incoming immigrants. Currently, the average skill level of immigrants is significantly reduced by two factors: largely uncontrolled border crossings and the high priority on kinship ties in the issuance of permanent residence visas. Only 7.6 percent of individuals granted visas for permanent entry into the U.S. are selected on the basis of their educational attainment and skills.[64] To the increase the skill levels of future immigrants, the U.S. should stop the inflow of illegal immigrants, reduce the number of family reunification visas, and increase the number of employment- and skill-based visas.

Five specific policies follow from these principles:

  1. The influx of illegal immigrants should be stopped by rigorous border security programs and strong programs to prevent employers from employing illegals.
  2. Amnesty and citizenship should not be given to current illegal immigrants. Amnesty has negative fiscal consequences and is manifestly unfair to those who have waited for years to enter the country lawfully. Amnesty would also serve as a magnet, drawing even more future illegal immigration.
  3. Any guest worker program should grant temporary, not permanent, residence and should not be a pathway to citizenship. A guest worker program should not disproportionately swell the ranks of low-skill workers.
  4. Children born to parents who are illegal immigrants or to future guest workers should not be given citizenship status. Granting citizenship automatically confers welfare eligibility and makes it unlikely the parent will ever leave the U.S.[65]
  5. The legal immigration system grants lawful permanent residence to some 950,000 persons each year. This system should be altered to substantially increase the proportion of new entrants with high levels of education and skills in demand by U.S. firms. Under current law, foreign-born parents and siblings of naturalized citizens are given preference for entry visas. The current visa allotments for family members (other than spouses and minor children) should be eliminated, and quotas for employment- and skill-based entry increased proportionately.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. 

Feds Stop Immigration Cooperation With Arizona

Read more:

The Obama administration will stop cooperating with Arizona law enforcement officials, and will only send officers to pick up undocumented aliens if they meet Immigration and Customs Enforcement Guidelines.

The decision comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Arizona v. United States ruling that invalidated most of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law. While the ruling left in place rules allowing local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people arrested or detained by police, the decision by the Obama administration means that many of those identified by Arizona officials will not be deported.

“We will not be issuing detainers on individuals unless they clearly meet our defined priorities,” said an unnamed official quoted by the conservative Washington Times.

The Obama administration had previously indicated that it intended to wind down the 287(g) program, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement to work as deputies monitoring immigration for the federal government. The program, which was begun under the administration of President George W. Bush, has been criticized by pro-immigration activists. The Obama administration had already canceled its agreement with the department of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

While the Obama administration had been planning to phase out the program, today’s decision to cancel agreements with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, as well as agreements with the Pinal and Pima County Sheriffs’ Departments and the Phoenix Police Department, effectively neutralizes the effects of the remaining section of S.B. 1070.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, lashed out at the decision by the Obama administration.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Brewer said in a statement. “The Obama administration has fought the people of Arizona at every turn – downplaying the threat that a porous border poses to our citizens, filing suit in order to block our State from protecting itself, unilaterally granting immunity to tens of thousands of illegal aliens living in our midst, and now this. Still, the disarmament of Arizona’s 287(g) agreements is a new low, even for this administration.”

The statement struck a much different tone than one she issued earlier in the day, in which she declared the Supreme Court’s ruling a “victory.”

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A Bailout for Illegal Immigrants? Lessons from the Implementation of the 1986 IRCA Amnesty

By David NorthJanuary 2010

David S. North is a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

By now most of us realize that the government handled the $700 billion bailout of the big banks badly. The money went out in a whoosh to the Wall Street outfits that had created the crisis, but without the needed regulatory changes to prevent its repetition.

Is Congress about to make a parallel mistake about the illegal alien population and give that group a blanket amnesty like the one it lavished on the (much smaller group of) bankers, without giving a thought to the inevitable impacts of such an action?

With that dubious prospect on the horizon, it is a good time to take a careful look at the dysfunctional inner workings of the last major bailout of America’s illegal alien population, the alien legalization program that Congress created with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

It is well known that some 2.7 million aliens secured legal status — many of them fraudulently — in that program, but there has been little discussion of the strange inner machinations that caused so much of the problem.

It so happened that, at that time, both a major foundation (Ford) and a minor federal agency (no longer surviving)1 asked me to evaluate the on-going operations of IRCA’s amnesty. A colleague and I spent nearly two years examining the program, visiting amnesty facilities across the nation and talking with hundreds of people involved in the program, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner to the shakiest of applicants.2

It is now clear that:

  • The agency running the program, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), far from being the tough law-enforcement agency the immigrants’ advocates feared, turned out to be a typical governmental agency with a strong case of client-itis, one that usually said “yes” to its applicants.

  • Operating without many useful precedents, INS created a new and questionable decision-making process that severely hampered the detection of fraud.

  • A great deal of money intended for the legalization program was diverted to other government programs.

  • As a result, there was a tremendous amount of fraud, largely ignored by INS. A subsequent Center for Immigration Studies estimate, based on population estimates, found that fully one quarter of those granted legal status had secured that status through fraud.3

The Setting for IRCA Decision-Making

The Political Background. IRCA was an omnibus immigration law, an attempt to form a grand bargain that would take care of many immigration policy disputes. Part of it was the introduction of “employer sanctions,” saying that it would be illegal, in the future, for employers to hire illegal aliens; the other part was the legalization package. The promise was that sanctions would eliminate the lure of jobs in the U.S. economy and the legalization package would put several important groups of illegal aliens on the path to citizenship, thus shrinking the size of both the current and future illegal populations. There were extensive hearings and much public discussion of the various issues.

The grand bargain was supported by President Reagan and his Attorney General, Ed Meese, as well as by the leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate and the leaders of the Democrat-controlled House. The chairman and ranking member of the Senate immigration subcommittee, Sens. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), had devoted considerable time and energy to its drafting, as had the House subcommittee chairman, Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-Ky.). House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) was similarly supportive.

Meanwhile in separate, off-stage negotiations, three key young Democratic members of the House put together a compromise that satisfied representatives of both the (largely Hispanic) farm workers and the California growers. Working around a kitchen table in one of their bachelor apartments on Capital Hill, then-Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), who spoke for the growers, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who spoke for the illegal farm workers, and the broker, then-Rep., now Sen., Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) created a compromise provision for Special Agricultural Workers, or SAWs. The trio then convinced other members of Congress to accept their provisions for farm workers.4

In short, legalization came into being with a considerable head of steam. It was only later that it became apparent that no serious effort would be made to either enforce employer sanctions or to create a national ID card that would make it easy for employers to identify legal, as opposed to illegal, immigrants.

IRCA’s Terms. The new statute (Public Law 99-603) was very complicated and was fully 100 pages long. It provided for four separate alien legalization programs, two of them quite narrow and never subject to much controversy,5 and two much broader programs.

Section 245A of the newly-amended Immigration and Naturalization Act gave legal status to applying aliens who: a) applied between May 5, 1987, and May 4, 1988; b) had been in the country more or less continuously since January 1, 1982; c) who did not have serious criminal records; and d) who met some other stipulations. A total of 1,763,434 aliens applied under this provision.6

The other major activity, the SAW program, gave legal status to those aliens who had done seasonal farm work in the United States for at least 90 days in 1984, 1985, or 1986 and who applied between June 1, 1987, and November 30, 1988. This provision drew 1,277,041 applicants.7

Both the SAW and the pre-1982 programs created a new, and passing, legal status for those approved. They became legal Temporary Resident Aliens (TRAs), a step toward green card status. While they were in this category their access to government-funded programs was limited, and they could not use the status to bring more immigrants into the country; they were, however, in legal status and could cross the border through the ports of entry.

The whole program was tilted strongly toward making legalization much easier for the farm workers, thanks to the deal engineered by the three young House members, and by the strength of the growers’ lobby. Not only did SAWs have to prove much shorter stays in the United States, they had a longer application period and the reward for eligibility was greater than for pre-1982 aliens. The SAWs, for example, unlike the pre-1982s, did not have to meet any English-speaking or civics requirements to secure a green card; they could, under some circumstances, apply from outside the country; and their transition from TRA status to green card status was automatic, as it was not for the pre-1982s.8

The paragraphs above touch only lightly on the extreme complexity of the program; there was, for instance, an ongoing controversy about a provision of the bill that required continuous residence for applicants except for “brief and casual” returns to the home country. The phrase was subject to continuing controversy, pressure from the immigration bar for a loose regulation, rounds of rule changes by INS, and more rounds of court decisions, with the result that the allowed periods of absence grew as the program progressed, and thus the number of eligible aliens continued to expand.

Institutional Inclinations. Another (and largely unrecognized) part of the IRCA setting was the inherent tendency of a governmental agency to be nice to its clientele. Schools and hospitals admit far more people than they turn away, for example. As we have noticed in the financial crisis, the SEC has not been unkind to brokers, nor has the Federal Reserve been beastly to the bankers. When I was in college, a political science professor used to single out the then-existing Interstate Commerce Commission for its very gentle regulation of its clients, the railroads. He called it “clientitis.”

It was only natural — but rarely discussed — that the INS would act in pretty much the same way in the legalization program. In retrospect, I must say that it certainly did, though I did not consider that a factor at the time.

Later in my work with immigration policy I remember a conversation with a former U.S. consul general in Manila; he made a strong point to me about how much more work is created for an individual consular official when he or she rejects a visa application, as opposed to approving one. There are reports to write, appeals to cope with, letters from local politicians criticizing the decision, and the like. But with an approval, except for the odd one that goes wrong, there is no further work. Institutionally, it works the same way.

The Mood Inside INS as Amnesty Approached. As I recall, and this is quite subjective, the mood within INS, which I knew pretty well at the time, was interesting.

On one hand the agency (largely a law-enforcement shop) had never run a massive short-term benefit program in the past; its executives wanted to tackle their new duties energetically, and their prime worry was that the eligible population might be frightened away by the long-standing law-enforcement image. On the other, the leadership knew that there would be fraud, but its detection did not appear to be a truly major concern as the program began.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for the program, at least initially, at the staff level. We kept running into people who had been, for instance, detention officers, who now were running local legalization programs and pleased as punch to be, perhaps briefly, wearing white hats.

External Pressures All One Way. Another element in the IRCA setting was the imbalance of forces playing on the program once it got underway. Neither the White House nor the Justice Department nor the Congress paid much attention to the program’s operations, or its evolving regulations. The restrictionists were largely quiet,9 but the pro-broad-immigration policy people were extremely active. There was extensive lobbying regarding the necessarily complex regulations at the national level, day-to-day pressure from like-minded organizations at the field office level, and a series of lawsuits, most of which were decided on a pro-immigrant-rights basis by the federal courts.

Given the rest of the IRCA setting, these pressures opened a long series of doors that permitted the legalization of many questionable applicants.10

IRCA Decision-Making Operation

The Structure. As the leaders of INS designed the organizational structure for the forthcoming legalization program, they not only worried about the levels of participation by the resident illegals, they also bore in mind a pattern of INS decision-making that they did not want to continue.

The pattern was in the naturalization program, a decades-old responsibility of the agency.11 Adjudicators in the district offices had made decisions on the applications, following interviews, without much Central Office (CO) review, and the approval rates (in the first half of 1985) ranged from 44.1 percent in the Harlingen Office (on the U.S.-Mexico border) to 88.4 percent for the much smaller volume in the Anchorage Office.12 The CO wanted to obtain a much more consistent set of decisions in the new legalization program.

In addition, the CO sought more centralized control of the whole process, and wanted, thus, to diminish the independence of the 34 district directors, all veteran civil servants who had become used to running their own operations. INS had at the time a superstructure of four regional offices but the real power in the field lay with the district directors.

Further, there was a governmental precedent for handling millions of paper-based decisions each year, and that was within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Some key players in the CO visited several IRS processing facilities to see how they handled the annual flood of paper from the nation’s taxpayers.

Finally, there was a precedent within INS for “remoting” some decision-making on fairly simple issues, such as the extension of a student visa.13 The CO noticed that some of the district office adjudicators had much more work than they could handle while, simultaneously, there were times in the middle of the night at the border crossings when officers there had little to do. So some of the decisions that could be made on the basis of paperwork alone were shipped or “remoted” from the district offices to the ports of entry.

With all these considerations in mind, CO devised a brand-new decision-making structure for the brand-new program. In order to both decrease traffic in the existing district offices, and to create a series of legalization-only offices with no law-enforcement overtones, the CO opened a string of 107 legalization offices. They were, organizationally, within the ambit of the district directors, but physically (and psychologically) they were separate. These offices were staffed with some current INS people, some INS retirees (often acting as supervisors), and many others, often with experience in other benefit-granting programs.

The front-line adjudicators, however, were mostly without immigration experience; they conducted the applicant interviews and then in 99-plus percent of the cases sent the paperwork to four regional processing facilities (RPFs) where the applications were to be further checked and final decisions were to be made. In fewer than 1 percent of the cases “statutory denials” were made at the local level and the applications rejected. These were the worst possible applications; in most, the applicant had filed some papers but did not, in fact, claim that he or she was eligible for the program.14

Unlike the interviews with naturalization applicants, where decisions were made on the spot, these legalization office interviews were totally non-confrontational. In many cases the interviewer (unknown to the applicant) wrote on the form that the application should be denied and/or that fraud was suspected.

As a matter of fact, we found unpublished INS data showing 882,637 legalization-office-recommended denials on March 24, 1989, as well as more than 300,000 pending cases. By the time the program closed its books, there were only 351,745 non-grants of legal status (we assume that this concept and that of a case denial are the same or approximately the same).15

Missed Opportunities to Detect Fraud. There were many missed opportunities to detect fraud, particularly in the SAW program where applicants vowed that they had worked in agriculture for at least 90 days.

There was, for instance, a conscientious first-line interviewer who knew something about the rural life and who faced many SAW applicants who did not. She developed a loose-leaf notebook with no text. It consisted of pictures of, and dried leaves from, the kinds of crops that were grown in her area. If someone said that they had picked strawberries, she asked them to show her the strawberry plants in the book; if they could not properly identify them she recommended a denial.

I remember asking the Deputy Assistant Commissioner in charge of the SAW program why the CO had not instructed field offices to replicate what she had done, and he said, in effect, there was no political will for spending time and energy on such things when the courts were constantly ruling against INS.

Similarly, there was a gold mine of computerized information in the files of the California Department of Employment Security on wages paid to farm workers by growers; it related to the state’s temporary disability insurance program. There was no effort made by INS to verify claims by California SAWs that they had worked for a specific employer by checking the state’s tax records for that employer.

Susan Gonzalez Baker, in her highly useful book on the IRCA program,16 describes a similar situation: an assertive SAW fraud-detection program that was developed by the Houston Legalization Office, but not adopted nationally. The Houston office had conducted intensive interviews with 2,000 SAW applicants and gave recommendations for approvals to no more than 300 of them.

How to Handle Case-by-Case Decisions. Let me digress for a moment. In the years since IRCA I had two other opportunities to examine, in some detail, how government agencies engage in case-by-case decision-making, and how they deliver the decisions to the person or persons involved.

In the mid 1990s I was asked by INS to conduct a study of the asylum decision-making process, for the internal use of that agency. Asylum seekers have much in common with legalization applicants — both are (usually) in this country illegally, and both want legal status. In the case of the asylum seekers they might qualify for refugee status were they in their home country, or nearby, but the seekers had managed to make their way to the United States.

INS, much as it did with IRCA legalization, had set up a string of separate offices to handle such claims, apart from the usual field office system. INS had established a separate career ladder for staff serving as asylum decision-makers. (This was the case then; I do not know how this is done now.)

The asylum seeker was, after some preliminaries, interviewed by an asylum officer. The officer asked a bank of questions and the interview was concluded. The officer later reviewed what was learned in the interview, checked out the conditions in the country of origin, made a recommendation, and passed it on to a supervisor, who usually accepted the recommendation. Once all that was done the seeker was called back into the office and was told the status of the case by someone other than the interviewing officer.

The asylum decision-maker, much like the first-line legalization interviewer, did not have to tell the alien face-to-face what the government’s decision was.

About the same time, I was appointed by the governing body in Arlington County, Va., to be chair of the local board of tax appeals.17 I served for over 10 years. There were five of us on the board and we handled real estate assessment appeals from home owners and owners of commercial properties. It was a part-time activity involving some 100-150 appeals a year, from owners of modest ($250,000) houses to those who owned or represented corporations with $100 million structures.

We held a hearing on each appeal, discussed what we had heard, and made a decision with the appellant in front of us. Usually we dismissed the appeal; sometimes we voted a reduction, but rarely as much as the appellant wanted. Although it was in the grand Wilsonian tradition — open covenants, openly arrived at — the five of us often faced some pretty hostile reactions, more likely from individual homeowners than from the professionals speaking for corporate interests.

From time to time I reached out to other Virginia boards of tax appeals to see how they handled their programs. (There was then no organized communication among the tax appeal boards.) Many of them had decided, for understandable reasons, to listen to the arguments at public sessions and then retreat into private sessions to make the decisions, which were then transmitted by letter.

All of these systems — those of IRCA legalization, the INS asylum program, and the non-Arlingtonian tax appeals boards — take a non-confrontational approach to delivering decisions to the appellants; it is likely that DHS will take a similar approach if another legalization program is mandated.

That would be a mistake. While the IRCA approach provides a more pleasant atmosphere for the front-line staff, it comes at a considerable public cost — there is be no opportunity to “break” a bad case during the applicant’s first contact with the system. In this way a large number of inappropriate claims can be eliminated from the system at the very start of the process. (Baker’s report about the Houston office task force, noted above, makes a similar point.)18

What is needed is the revival of part of the process that was not used (or was seriously downplayed) during IRCA, which is the penalty-free withdrawal of an application during the initial interview. Many weak claims to naturalization, similarly, were allowed to be withdrawn during the old naturalization processing — these were far more numerous than the formal denials of a claim, as I discovered in the previously mentioned Ford Foundation-supported study.19

If there is another legalization program, which I do not advocate, the following scenario should have a chance to play out. If the applicant seems to have a weak or apparently fraudulent application, the interviewer would then tell the applicant that this was the case, and give the applicant two choices: either proceed with the application, and possibly run into trouble if it is rejected, or withdraw it.

If the latter occurs the applicant is told that his or her name and address will not be forwarded to the enforcement people and the fee will be refunded (or perhaps not collected in the first place). The Department of Homeland Security would, however, retain a one-page cover sheet (with a photo and a thumbprint) as a record of the application’s withdrawal. All applications filed would then be matched against the file of those that had been previously withdrawn.

The applicants in the IRCA legalization program never encountered such a situation with the result that, as we will show shortly, a large number of what must have been fraudulent applications were approved.

Another Model — Social Security’s Disability Retirement Decisions. There is another government decision-making system that handles millions of benefit decisions each year on a paper-only basis: the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) disability determinations process. A favorable decision gives the disabled worker a retirement-like pension years before the normal retirement age. Each favorable decision is thus both valuable to the worker and expensive to the government.

In fact, the average value of a favorable decision in 2007 was $209,875, an average benefit of $12,642 a year to beneficiaries whose average age was 48.4 years. There were 818,500 such favorable decisions in 2007.20

The disability determinations are based on applications and medical records sent to a central location in each state and territory; the decisions are not based on interviews. The system is not without its critics, who have long thought it both too slow in responding to applications and not generous enough.21 It is a system, however, unlike IRCA, that in most years says “no” to more than 60 percent of its applicants, and says “yes” to less than 40 percent of them.

Perhaps the difference between the high rate of rejections in the disability system, and the remarkably low rate of rejections in the IRCA legalization — 12 percent — relates partially to the perceived costs of the two different decisions.

While both programs have strict legal definitions of eligibility and these are important in both settings, in SSA the management and staff are aware of both the benefits to the individual and the costs to society. I have a feeling that there was no particular sense in INS that a grant of legal status in the IRCA program represented any cost to society.

Funding. In addition to an overall environment that tilted toward grants of legal status, and away from fraud detection, there was the matter of funding.22

Congress had decided that the costs of the legalization program were to be borne by the applicants; the successful ones, after all, would receive a major, life-long benefit. INS decided before the program started that the basic fee would be $185 per application.

The fees collected in the pre-1982 program and the expenses of that program, roughly $400 million, were in approximate balance with other. But there was no similar balance in the SAW program, where fully three-quarters of the $240 million collected in that program — all from the applicants — was diverted to other government programs.

One nicely documented example of such a transfer was reported by Interpreter Releases, the immigration bar’s scholarly trade paper. An assistant INS commissioner announced that $50 million in what he termed excess SAW fees were going to be used to buy INS a whole new generation of computers.23 When I reported, during the Ford-supported research, that this money could have been, and should have been, used to identify fraudulent SAW applicants, that assistant commissioner (who will remain nameless) literally screamed at me; I had apparently touched a raw nerve.

In short, one of the reasons why there was so much fraud in the SAW program was because INS siphoned off $180 million or so away from fraud detection.

Immediate Results

Many Legalizations. The principal, immediate result of the IRCA legalization program was the addition of nearly 2.7 million to the population of those legally present in the United States, as Table 1 indicates. About 1.6 million of these came through the pre-1982 program and the balance, 1.1 million, were from the SAW program. There were also a few thousand who had benefitted from the two minor legalization programs, those for long-term illegals and for some of the Cuban-Haitian entrants.

A couple of years after the end of the filing period, INS funded a survey of those who had been legalized through the pre-1982 part of the program. The contractor, Westat, had some troubles reaching the population of interest — and would have had even more trouble had the SAWs been included — but it managed to reach a pretty good sample of 6,193 of them.24 Only beneficiaries over the age of 18 were interviewed.

The study showed that the population was primarily from Mexico (70 percent), a percentage that would be considerably higher if the SAWs were included. The pre-1982 beneficiaries were 58 percent male, had about seven years of education on average, and two-thirds were residents of the border states. California was the residence of 55 percent of them, and Texas 18 percent. Illinois and New York each had 7 percent of the population.

Though the study did not use these words, the population surveyed was mostly at the bottom of the U.S. labor market; 34 percent were laborers, 30 percent were in the service industries, and, oddly, 7 percent were doing farm work at the time of the survey. (Why anyone with farm credentials would have used this program, rather than the SAW program, was not explained.)

The study did note that, “The distribution of workers by occupation and industry was dramatically different for the legalized population than it was for other Americans. The percentage of legalized aliens in white-collar jobs (15 percent) was less than one-third that for the general population....” 25

Much Inaction on Much Fraud. The striking thing about Table 1 to one who has been in close touch with the program is the rejection rate for the two sub-populations, 10 percent of the pre-1982 applicants were rejected, but only 14 percent of the SAW applicants did not get green cards.

Everyone who had any knowledge of the legalization program at the time sensed that there was some fraud in the pre-1982 program, and a great deal of it in the SAW program. We were provided unpublished data from the regional processing facilities in April 1989 that showed the recommended denials (at the legalization office level) were eight times as numerous within the smaller SAW program than they were within the larger pre-1982 program.26

The low rate of SAW rejections is jarring whether one looks at the internal dynamics of the program or at population figures or at the mountains of anecdotal evidence.

As to the program dynamics, bear in mind not only that the time in the United States to be claimed, and hopefully documented, was much less in SAW than in the other program, and that the rewards were marginally better in the SAW program, but there was also a period of nearly seven months between the close of the pre-1982 program and the close of the SAW program. Whatever your eligibility, the only program you could apply to during these months was that for SAWs. These factors, one would suppose, would tend to facilitate more fraud in the SAW program than in the other.

Regarding the analysis of the SAW applicant population vs. other data on the size of the farm worker population, one needs only to look at California, a state that keeps better records on agricultural labor than most. The likely incidence of fraud among California SAW applicants is significant because about 55 percent of the nation’s SAW applicants were from that state.27

As we noted in our Ford report,28 and as many others did as well,29 the number of SAW applicants in California (699,100) was at least twice as high as any other governmental measure of the total farm labor force in that state — even assuming, as one should not, that every bit of farm labor in the state was performed by SAW applicants and that legally resident persons did not pick a single tomato nor cut a single lemon. This statistic would suggest that at least half of the California SAW applications were fraudulent.

Center for Immigration Studies Director of Research Steven Camarota, in a Backgrounder about the proposed Hagel-Martinez Amnesty of 2006, estimated that fully 700,000 of the 1.1 million SAW applicants were fraudulent.30

The anecdotal evidence of the extent of fraud was monumental, as we reported to Ford31 and as Baker reported to the Urban Institute.32

Without belaboring the point, perhaps this piece of our study33 would be helpful:

We were finishing an interview with a Hispanic woman who managed a small QDE agency that specialized in farm workers, when the following exchange took place:

Question: “In your work with this agency have you ever encountered any applicants who you thought might not be eligible?”

Reply: “Most of the applicants I have seen in the last six months probably are not eligible for the program.”

Question: “What gives you the first clue?”

Reply: “Well, there’s the whiteout on the applications....”

QDEs were “qualified designated entities” (another lovely use of the language), community organizations funded by INS to help applicants apply for the legalization program. Ethnic organizations in the Southwest and local units of the various refugee-serving agencies often secured the (rather modest) QDE funding.

A Muffed Public Health Opportunity. There are public health interventions at some set points in people’s lives, such as the requirement of vaccinations for all entering students by many public schools. Similarly, ever since the days of Ellis Island (which turned away immigrants with what were thought to be dangerous diseases) there have been public health aspects of the immigration process.

During IRCA’s legalization there was a required, once-over-lightly medical interview and blood test for, among other things, AIDS. I had suggested in testimony before the Senate immigration subcommittee that those seeking legalization should also be required to have the same set of vaccinations demanded of school children. This was watered down to a requirement that the medical interview should include questions on vaccinations.

In the years since, the Public Health Service has strengthened its hand and arriving immigrants are now required to have vaccinations.

So while some IRCA legalization applicants learned that they had TB or AIDS — a benefit to them and to the wider public — an opportunity to give vaccinations to three million people — people with minimal health care opportunities — was lost.

Longer-Term Results

The Big Picture. As with the bailout of the bankers, where a small minority secured major benefits at the expense of the rest of us, the benefits from the legalization program are largely private, while the long-term costs are borne by the larger society.

The big picture is distorted by the contrasting visualization of the benefits and the costs. On one hand, the illegal alien who becomes a legal one has made a large, highly visible step forward. That is a black-and-white situation, while the financial costs to, and the demographic impacts on, the rest of us are much harder to appreciate. (Few people who are not near immigration policy understand, for instance, that the newly legalized, particularly after they become citizens, obtain the legal right to bring still more migrants to the United States — our family preference system guarantees that. Fewer still understand the impact on the environment of a fast-growing population.)

We cannot, in this paper, do more than touch on the long-term fiscal and demographic impacts on society as a whole of the changed legal status of these 2.7 million people.

Minor Labor Market Advances. Another factor clouding the cost-benefits analyses of the results of the IRCA legalization program are the writings of statistics-shaping optimists, presumably good people who may not know that their cheerful outlook colors their findings.

For example, one analysis of a second-round of Westat-conducted, INS-funded polling of the pre-1982 beneficiaries 10 years later (in 1992) had this to say:34

A series of analyses based on this sample of unauthorized immigrants revealed a high level of labor force participation with a pattern of moderate upward occupational mobility over time.

Well, yes, but most American adults work and most of us had better jobs at 35 than we did 10 years earlier. And then there was this comment:

By 1992, over 45 percent of men and 27 percent of women had attained occupational status better than the bottom third of all persons in the labor market.

It sounds good until you do the math. For simplicity’s sake let’s assume that there were as many women as men in the sample. Then let’s add 45 percent to 27 percent and divide by half, giving us 36 percent — that’s the group that is above the bottom third. Now let’s subtract 36 percent from 100 percent and we have 64 percent who are, by definition, in the bottom third. So 10 years after they arrived this sample of the legalized population is still about twice as likely to be in the bottom third of the labor market as Americans generally.

We should not be surprised, even though they are here legally, now, because statistics show that, on average, they are a lightly-educated work force with limited to very limited English. And were the SAWs to be included in the survey, the results would have been even more dismal.

While the legal benefits of regularized status can, appropriately, be contrasted as black and white, the labor market differences, 10 years later, appear to be a comparison between very, very dark gray and very dark gray — but some commentators do not have gray on their palettes.

Below-Average Interest in Citizenship. Speaking of gray, that is a good color for depicting the naturalization rates of the newly legalized.

While I have not seen any governmental analysis — it may exist — of the extent to which the IRCA legalization beneficiaries have made use of their new status to secure immigration-expanding visas for their relatives, INS, before it was consumed by the DHS, did provide useful information on another topic, naturalization.

In a study of aliens who arrived in the United States in the years 1979-1982, legally or illegally, INS checked on the differential patterns among three groups for subsequently securing citizenship — the normal flow of legal immigrants, the recipients of the pre-1982 amnesty, and the SAWs. I am assuming that all had an equal legal right to take the citizenship tests, but, as Table 2 shows, the non-IRCAs were more likely to do so than the people going through the legalization program. And within the IRCA program, the pre-1982s were almost twice as likely to go through the process as the SAWs.

One might argue that since Mexican nationals have historically lower naturalization rates than other immigrants, the large numbers of them in the IRCA legalization program must have had an impact on the naturalization rates. But, as the author of that study, Nancy Rytina, shows in one of her tables, even within the category of Mexican immigrants three of the four subsets of the newly-legalized were less likely to naturalize than the non-IRCA immigrants from Mexico. The one exception was what must be a very small population of illegal aliens who had violated their visas, rather than crossing the border by night. Most illegal aliens from Mexico are not visa abusers. Two groups of Mexican national SAWs rounded out her analysis; both had naturalization rates of about half that of the others, 17 percent and 18 percent.35


  1. The United States should not have another legalization program. We have proved that amnesties simply beget more illegals, and they, in turn, beget new and more vigorous pleas for another amnesty. We know, or should know, that more people with limited skills and limited rights in the labor market can only lead to still greater discrepancies between the rich and the poor. Further, as a nation, we seem to be incapable of creating an adequate infrastructure for those who are already living here — why strain it further?

  2. If there is to be a legalization program, there should be no special program for farm workers. If there were to be one, it would certainly be designed to maximize the numbers of approved applications and to minimize fraud control.

  3. If there is to be a general amnesty, it should be narrow in scope, and it should come with a decision-making system focused on permitting legalization only for those who meet the qualifications. It should put heavy emphasis on the initial interview, and make sure that the burden of proof is on the applicant throughout the process, as it was not during part of the SAW program. Similarly, there should be a readily available opportunity for shaky applicants to withdraw and to get their money back if fees again fund the program.

  4. The funding of such a program should be arranged to fully support fraud detection, not only using all the fees collected for that program, but tax funds as well, if need be. There never should be a financial incentive to the managing agency to tolerate fraud, as there was in the SAW program.

  5. Within the U.S. bankruptcy court system, a Justice Department entity, there is an institutional arrangement that might be copied if Congress makes the mistake of creating another legalization program. It is based on the premise that the narrow resolution of competing private interests (creditor vs. debtor) does not always serve the public interest. Separate from the bankruptcy courts there is the Office of the U.S. Trustee, another Justice Department entity. It plays a continuing role as friend of the court, observes what is happening, and when the public interest appears to be neglected, it intervenes with recommendations to individual judges in individual cases.

    It would be helpful if a disinterested, well-funded, public body could play the same role should there be a legalization program, intervening on behalf of public policy considerations when the decision-making system focuses almost solely, as it did during IRCA, on the claimed individual rights of applicants.

  6. Further, the statute setting up any legalization program should make it clear that public-interest bodies, just as individual aliens, have a legal standing to argue their point of view. I think IRCA was silent on this point.

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