More than 150 students and Dream Act supporters rallied in front of the Federal Office Building in downtown Los Angeles, California, on Friday, June 15, 2012, to voice their support for President Obama's decision to halt the deportation of young illegal immigrants. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT) Photo: Al Seib, McClatchy-Tribune News Service / SF
Opponents of the president's decision to allow some undocumented young people brought to the United States as children to stay here claim it amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers. In fact, they say the same about all proposals that would give undocumented immigrants a chance to remain in the United States. Yet amnesty has been an important and regular feature of federal immigration policy for well over a century. Only recently has amnesty become a dirty word in the immigration debate.
Over the past 120 years, Congress has granted six major amnesties and many smaller ones. Congress passed the first amnesty in 1893, a mere two years after making deportation a central part of the law. Then, for much of the 20th century, Congress regularly excused otherwise law-abiding noncitizens who entered or remained in the United States without authorization. Across-the-board amnesties for long-term residents, new laws allowing authorities to waive deportation on a case-by-case basis, and thousands of private bills passed to grant individuals legal status, became typical.
The reasons for amnesty were - and still are - humanitarian and practical. Congress recognized the cruelty and hardship of unnecessarily breaking up families - especially those with spouses and children who were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Moreover, lawmakers understood that it would be senseless to expel people who had shown that they were exactly the sort of individuals who helped to make our country strong - much like the ambitious, law-abiding young people who will benefit from the president's decision.
Congress also deliberately made unlawful entry into the United States a "petty offense," i.e., the lowest form of misdemeanor, on par with littering or having an unauthorized campfire in a national park.
The concept of amnesty and the deeper underlying principles of grace, forgiveness and redemption are vital considerations in the law. Thus, complaints that amnesty undermines the rule of law ring hollow.
Many Americans agree that justice should be tempered with mercy and discretion. While every rape and murder should be investigated, very few Americans believe that every regulatory infraction should be punished. Imagine if our courts were filled with people who jaywalked, drove a few miles per hour over the speed limit or used a canceled postage stamp (a federal crime punishable by fine and imprisonment). In short, a system of total prosecution would be costly, impractical and terrifying.
Because universal prosecution is not part of the American legal tradition, claims that minor immigration violators must be punished are unpersuasive.
Opposition to immigration today is inseparable from immigration's contribution to the racial transformation of the United States. Michael M. Hethmon, the head of the influential Immigration Law Reform Institute, which has opposed any form of comprehensive immigration reform and helped draft Arizona's now-weakened SB1070 and other state-level immigration laws, noted that immigration was "on track to change the demographic makeup of the entire country. You know, what they call 'minority-majority.' "
It is the demographics of the future rather than the jurisprudence of the past that fuels hostility toward undocumented immigrants and the wisdom of occasional amnesty.
At its best, U.S. immigration policy has honored the rule of law through pragmatism, rejection of racial discrimination, and a recognition that all immigrants are members of the human family. A wise and carefully constructed amnesty based on this history is not a dirty word, but a crown jewel.