Talking Points

  • Although real immigration reforms will require serious attention and commitment, many do not require new legislation, but merely appropriate funding and faithful implementation of current law by the
executive branch.
  • Amnesty is an extremely costly and unfair policy that would undercut immigration enforcement and border security efforts. It was tried in 1986 and failed; the U.S. should not make the same mistake again.
  • Trying to solve the immigration system with one giant, comprehensive bill does not allow Congress to discuss the many important immigration issues fully and meaningfully. This lack of attention to critical policy questions results in special-interest handouts, loopholes, waivers, and highly flawed policies—as seen in the disastrous Obamacare rollout.
  • Instead, the U.S. must dedicate itself to securing its border, robustly enforcing existing immigration laws, and reforming its legal immigration system with a step-by-step approach.

The Issue

One of the federal government’s core responsibilities is to control our borders and determine who enters the United States. Regrettably, the government has consistently failed at this, leading to today’s untenable situation with over 11 million individuals unlawfully present in the U.S. Not only does the border remain unsecured, but the government has failed to reform its broken visa system to ensure that those who come to the U.S. on a temporary visa do not stay here permanently.

Those who favor granting amnesty have tried to convince Americans to support it by claiming that their actions and comprehensive immigration reform legislation will secure the border, strengthen interior enforcement, and tighten visa policy. Yet the Administration’s recent actions indicate that it cannot be trusted to enforce existing immigration law, let alone the new provisions in Senate or House immigration bills: The Administration has decided unilaterally, without action by Congress, to stop enforcing immigration law for illegal immigrants who were brought here as children; complete only “lean and light” background checks, if any at all, on these illegal immigrants; and undercut state and local efforts to assist in enforcing U.S. immigration law through programs such as 287(g).

The Obama Administration has moved the U.S. farther from enforcement of immigration laws and is sending an unmistakable message to the American people that it will not enforce our laws. Equally problematic, amnesty legislation, most clearly embodied in the Senate’s S. 744, sends a clear signal to the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. and millions of potential immigrants still in their home countries that entering and staying in the U.S. illegally is no bar to permanent residence and even citizenship if you can remain undetected until the next amnesty. This message will not stop illegal immigration; it will only encourage more, as seen by the rising numbers of illegal immigrants and border crossings that correspond with Congress debating amnesty and economic growth slowly increasing.

Amnesty was tried in 1986 and failed. Since then, promises of more border security and greater enforcement of immigration laws have failed to materialize. President Obama’s actions and executive orders on immigration have made it clear that any amnesty bill, even if it promises enforcement, would only result in more broken promises. Instead of solving the problem, amnesty would encourage further illegal immigration, undermine efforts to uphold the rule of law, and damage efforts to institute meaningful reforms that make it easier for immigrants and workers to come to the U.S. to help the U.S. economy grow and prosper. Importantly, amnesty could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars as those given amnesty gain access to the whole panoply of government entitlements and welfare programs, adding huge costs to these already broken programs and driving the U.S. further into debt.

It is time for Congress and the Administration to stop chasing costly, harmful immigration policies and start pursuing fair and practical solutions to America’s broken immigration system and porous borders.


  1. Maintain and increase efforts to enhance border security. The Department of Homeland Security and Congress should explore a variety of solutions to the multiple threats faced at the border, ranging from illicit drugs to illegal migration. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cameras and sensors, for example, would give the Border Patrol enhanced monitoring and detection capabilities. Cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement through Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and related Merida Initiative programs is essential. Congress and the Administration should also ensure that the U.S. Coast Guard has adequate vessels and personnel to fulfill its missions and prevent illegal immigration and smuggling via the sea. Critically, most of these solutions can be addressed through the normal budgeting and appropriations process.
  2. Reject amnesty proposals. Granting amnesty to the millions of unlawful immigrants in the United States would encourage more illegal immigration. In 1986, Congress granted a mass amnesty to nearly 3 million unlawful immigrants and then failed to deliver on promised improvements in enforcement and border security. Rather than deterring illegal immigration, this encouraged more people to come and stay here illegally. Congress and the Administration must reject calls for amnesty and instead employ measures to discourage migrants from crossing into and staying in the U.S. illegally.
  3. Strengthen interior enforcement measures in the United States. Since taking office, the Obama Administration has consistently weakened key interior enforcement measures and trampled immigration laws at the President’s choosing. The Administration abandoned “Social Security No-Match,” which notified employers who hired workers whose personal information did not match Social Security records and informed them of their legal obligations; reduced or stopped enforcement actions against various classes of unlawful immigrants; and fostered changes that have weakened the 287(g) program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. These policies undermine efforts to deter illegal immigration, essentially sending the message that once here, it is easy to find employment and stay indefinitely. Perhaps the most important thing Congress can do to stop illegal immigration is to pressure the Administration to fully enforce existing immigration laws.
  4. Promote economic development and good governance in Latin America to stem the “push-pull effect” that fosters illegal immigration. Illegal immigration results largely from the “push-pull effect” caused by the combination of stagnant economies in Latin America and the need for workers in the United States. To stem this tide, the United States should implement a market-based temporary-worker pilot program to meet the American demand for workers, giving U.S. businesses access to a reliable, rotating workforce from abroad. Such programs, including the implementation of a simplified visa system, would meet the needs of the American economy and also quell the drive for illegal immigration. Fostering free-market economic reforms in Latin America would also help to strengthen regional economic opportunities and reduce the need for individuals to seek employment abroad in order to support themselves and their families.
  5. Make immigration and work visa programs support the U.S. economy. America is a free-market society, and labor is part of that market. The government’s job is to facilitate the movement of labor in a manner that keeps America free, safe, and prosperous. Equally important, for the free-market exchange of labor to work, the United States must become and remain an “opportunity society” rather than a magnet trapping low-skilled labor in a cycle of poverty and impoverishment without opportunity for social mobility or patriotic assimilation. This means raising the cap on H-1B visas for skilled workers and making the visa system easier to navigate, thus drawing more skilled workers to the U.S. Additionally, as mentioned above, the U.S. should have a temporary-worker pilot program to meet the needs of U.S. companies while preventing workers’ dependence on government. All of these initiatives can be taken without implementing comprehensive immigration reform, providing the United States with all of the economic benefits of immigration without crippling costs.
  6. Reform the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to handle legal immigration more effectively and efficiently. USCIS needs to do a better job of providing the immigration services and enforcement that the nation needs. Reforms should include an entirely new funding model, a comprehensive overhaul of the agency’s service support enterprise, and better integration of USCIS programs with immigration enforcement and border control efforts. USCIS also needs to streamline existing visa programs, such as those for H-1B and temporary or seasonal agricultural workers.

Facts & Figures

  • The number of illegal immigrants inside the U.S. has topped off at around 12 million. That number dropped to as low as 11 million during the recent economic recession but is rising again with 11.7 million unlawful immigrants estimated in 2012.
  • Approximately 60 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico. Another 24 percent come from other Latin American countries, and around 16 percent come from Asia, Europe, and Africa.
  • According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, one of every four inmates in federal prisons is an illegal immigrant.
  • 50.7 percent of unlawful immigrant households are headed by persons without a high school degree, while only 19.9 percent of lawful immigrant households and 9.6 percent of native households are headed by persons without a high school education.
  • Amnesty for unlawful immigrants could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in net costs because, on average, households with lower levels of education receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. The average unlawful immigrant household received $14,387 more in benefits than they paid in taxes in 2010.
  • As of July 2013, 16 states have active legislation granting illegal immigrant students in-state tuition benefits: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Wisconsin enacted similar legislation in 2009 but revoked it in 2011.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Immigration

  • Charles Stimson

    Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow

  • Robert Rector

    Senior Research Fellow

  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.