Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Debating Amnesty and Immigration Policy

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 27, 2012

Yesterday I had an exchange with my CFR colleague, Ed Husain (who has a fantastic blog, “The Arab Street,”), about my last post on Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” plan. I wanted to post it here, to add to the lively debate on the issue of amnesty, and immigration reform more generally, and he graciously agreed. Below is our conversation:

From: Ed Husain
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 3:19 PM
To: Shannon O’Neil

Very bold stance in your blog yesterday on undocumented immigrants and how they are, essentially, part of the U.S. social fabric.

From: Shannon O’Neil
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 3:20 PM
To: Ed Husain

Thanks – I guess bold is good. And it is true: millions are parents, spouses, or siblings of U.S. citizens. They are not going to leave even if it is hard to get a job…

From: Ed Husain
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 3:27 PM
To: Shannon O’Neil

I prefer bold any day over ‘weighing options’ — taking a stance is more compelling to this reader rather than presenting alternate arguments.

My hunch is to agree with you: it’s a very humane and morally obliging argument. Not to mention economically more viable.

I struggle with its logical conclusion, though: an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and thereby encouraging others to break the law and migrate in the hope of future amnesties.

From: Shannon O’Neil
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 3:36 PM
To: Ed Husain

The difference is this. Especially for Mexican migrants, given the combination of absolute number caps on legal visas combined with the large number of Mexican family members here, parents, kids, and siblings have to make the choice of growing up (for years potentially) apart waiting for a legal family visas, or coming illegally. So do you want to wait and do the paper work and hope you get to see your 4 year old when he/she is 8-9 years old? Or do you bring them illegally? That is an inhumane law, and should be changed. If you can bring your kid within months, then I think people would wait.

Same with parents that are illegal. Do you send them back, meaning they won’t see their kids for 10 years (at least), at least here in the United States? Yes they are illegal, but in part because of the dysfunction of current laws. So laws in my view need to be changed to reflect realities.

From: Ed Husain
Sent: Thursday, January 26, 2012 3:54 PM
To: Shannon O’Neil

Not much of a choice between obeying the law and parting from one’s family for an indefinite amount of time. Thanks for explaining. I come to this with a European bias where we have a mess with consequences of legal and illegal immigration and no ‘solution’ in sight. The US seems better suited to absorb immigrants (legal or otherwise). In Europe, we’re wrestling intensely with identity, race, multiculturalism, and what it means to be ‘European’. In contrast, immigrants here integrate into the United States and adopt the U.S. Constitution and history as their own.

Any other readers who would like to weigh in should feel free to do so in the comments section. I look forward to your feedback.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Ted Alden


    Very interesting exchange. I would add one point, regarding Ed’s comment, where he writes: “I struggle with its logical conclusion, though: an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and thereby encouraging others to break the law and migrate in the hope of future amnesties.” If you look at the data on illegal entry over the past decade, which has now fallen to levels we have not seen since the early 1970s, the argument that an amnesty would just become an incentive for more illegal entry (as it was in 1986) no longer holds. There are simply many fewer people trying to enter illegally, for both demographic and economic reasons, and the enforcement gauntlet is vastly more effective than it was two decades ago. There is little reason to believe that an amnesty now would have the same incentive effects that it did in 1986.

  • Posted by Shannon K. O'Neil

    Excellent point, Ted.

  • Posted by J. Reed Brundage

    You state clearly what a lot of people in the U.S. don’t understand or, perhaps, don´t want to understand: U.S. immigration laws are “inhuman” and “should be changed.” The suggestion that the “illegals” should “go home and get in (the visa) line” is absurd for all the reasons you state.

  • Posted by Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

    An important and illuminating discussion. If only more people viewed the immigration issue through equal parts compassion and insight.

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