The Injustice of Amnesty

COMMENTARY Immigration

The Injustice of Amnesty

Nov 21st, 2014 4 min read

Former President

After serving in the Senate, DeMint served as President of The Heritage Foundation.

President Obama looks set to embark on a power play that will usurp the legislative power of Congress. The lives of untold thousands rest on that decision as well;  if he opts to decree amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants already in this country, it will encourage millions more to risk a treacherous, unlawful journey across our borders for the same reward.

Administration officials have leaked word of the president’s plan—likely announced tonight—to grant administrative amnesty for up to five million illegal immigrants. Like his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative of 2012, the move would constitute a stark refusal to enforce laws passed by Congress. It might even precipitate a Constitutional crisis.

Perversely, the president’s new plan will encourage those now contemplating an illegal border crossing to “go for it.” Like DACA, the impending order attempts to put out a fire with gasoline.

The humanitarian crisis last spring at our southern border arose from the lamentably accurate perception in Central and South America that the U.S. no longer enforces its immigration laws. Men, women and children bet their lives on a dangerous excursion northward in the belief that they can slip through the cracks in the American legal system and ultimately receive amnesty.

Many lost that gamble—falling prey to thieves, rapists, cartels and human traffickers. Bodies are routinely found in the desert on our southern border, many belonging to people who may not have risked their lives had our government simply enforced current law and our leaders been consistent in their rhetoric.

There are other victims as well. Smugglers, gang members and others who intend to break more than immigration laws take advantage of the chaos created when we abandon the rule of law.

In light of this tragedy, Congress must enforce the laws currently on the books, do everything possible to ensure no one else suffers this fate, and streamline our immigration system. The House of Representatives has passed multiple bills toward achieving these goals. President Obama, ignoring the proposed legislation, is considering a plan that fails on three main counts.

Administrative amnesty is unjust. The United States already admits around a million legal permanent immigrants a year, more than any other nation in the world. They have waited their turn, followed the rules and worked hard to get here. If we allow certain people to skip the line—rewarding them for breaking the rules—we are no longer a nation of equals: we become a nation of favoritism. This is unfair to both legal immigrants and to all law-abiding Americans.

It is also costly. The administrative costs of DACA are already high; adding five million more people onto the caseload will be a drain on taxpayer dollars. In addition, illegal immigration puts a huge strain on public social services: Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, while a proponent of legal immigration, noted that the welfare state and open borders cannot coexist.

Finally, it will not work. The mass amnesty of 1986 did nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigration. The implementation of DACA two years ago has led to the present crisis. Similar initiatives will only encourage more people to take the risk. The solution to a problem is not to declare that it doesn’t exist.

Above all, administrative amnesty makes a mockery of Congress, and therefore, of the political will of all Americans. Just as the Legislative branch cannot enforce laws, the Executive cannot write them. Refusal to account for millions in this country illegally and protect America’s border goes beyond prosecutorial discretion and beyond incompetence. It is both derelict and authoritarian.

This is not an issue of political party. Left and right alike will be disenfranchised by an Executive that abuses its command and ignores the law at whim. It sets a terrible precedent for all future administrations.

Congress must resolve to condemn and reverse any such unilateral actions by the president, and stand ready to use the power of the purse to prevent any taxpayer dollars from funding his power play. They would have the backing of the American people, who cast their ballots earlier this month to elect lawmakers who explicitly promised to fight such executive lawlessness.

President Obama, for his part, should ponder his oath of office, his responsibility to his country, and those who will perish in the attempt to reach our shores due to his encouragement. If he’s serious about solving this problem, he has legitimate avenues to take:

  • Enforce immigration laws already on the books and fully equip our agents on the ground. Border agents who tangle with murderous cartels are being forced to share rifles, and many areas of the border itself lack modern sensor and camera technologies. Remove the vast political pressure this administration holds against agents simply doing their jobs.


  • Work closely with our neighbors in Central and South America to limit illegal immigration, while ensuring that individuals up for deportation are returned swiftly and safely. Releasing these individuals—especially those who have committed crimes— into our communities because of administrative backlog is unacceptable. All federal prosecutors should be required to seek one of several forms of streamlined removal in criminal cases where the defendant is a deportable immigrant. Such an action will ensure that not only are criminal aliens removed immediately upon completion of their jail sentence, but the workload on our burdened immigration court system is reduced.



  • Make U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services more efficient and effective. Bureaucracy is terrible wherever it lies, especially if it’s keeping people waiting too long to experience the American dream. The New York Times reported in February that DACA actually diverted resources from people trying to enter the country legally, and extended wait times for resident visa approvals. Amnesty won’t solve institutional problems like this; it will only make them worse.

Thankfully, our nation remains one worth immigrating for. Those traveling here in the future deserve to arrive safely and legally, and we have a chance to make sure they do.

That die is not yet cast. There is still time to change course.

 - Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina, is president of The Heritage Foundation.


Originally appeared in Politico Magazine