I have been surprised at the virulence of the response to the President's proposals for dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. I had not realized there was so much hostility to illegal immigrants, who are mainly from Mexico and Central America. Many Americans seem to regard anything short of expelling the entire illegal-immigration population, which may be as large as 12 million (though my guess is that it is much lower), as a form of "amnesty" that would be immoral because it would reward illegality.
Well, that is what amnesties do; they forgive crimes. But they are a conventional policy tool, and should not be despised. They are particularly common as a means of dealing with tax evasion. Tax evasion is extremely common because it is so difficult to detect. A tax amnesty in effect sells the tax evader immunity from punishment in exchange for payment of back taxes due. The amnesty is attractive to the government because it raises revenue and to the tax evader because it enables him to buy his way out of the risk of being prosecuted should he be caught. It is a mutually beneficial trade. The objection to amnesties is that they increase the incentive to commit the amnestied crime in the future by holding out the prospect of future amnesties. The objection is superficial. The government will (if it is being sensible) trade off the gain in revenue from the amnesty against the future loss of tax revenues that is likely to be caused by the prospect of future amnesties, and so it will set the amnesty "price" at the level that maximizes the net gain in revenue. For example, if it reckons that the prospect of future amnesties will lead to significantly more tax evasion in the future, it can condition the amnesty on the tax evader's paying not merely the back taxes he owes but a substantial penalty as well.
It is the same with an immigration "amnesty," if one wants to describe the President's plan in those terms. In exchange for not risking being deported, illegal immigrants can be required to pay not only back taxes due but also a fine greater than the $2,000 currently proposed. Of course, the stiffer the penalty, the fewer illegal immigrants will step forward and acknowledge their status, and so the less effective the "amnesty" will be. I would not favor a stiff penalty. The Americans who for one reason or another are most concerned about illegal immigration are not much or maybe at all concerned about legal immigration, and so converting illegal to legal immigrants should be regarded by them as a highly beneficial step.
There is antipathy to "rewarding" legal immigrants, who have jumped the queue of people trying to immigrate to the United States--a queue that can take many years to get to the head of legally. But what is the alternative? It is not feasible to deport millions of people from the United States, and those who would like to do this should accept as a second-best solution regularizing the status of the illegal immigrants. Nor is it clear that the people waiting patiently in the queue are "better" people or would be better Americans than the illegals. Many of them may be in the queue not because they want to be Americans but because they want to preserve the option to relocate to the United States should conditions or opportunities in their home country worsen.
It would be desirable in principle to get control of our borders, but it probably is impossible. Our border with Mexico is almost 2000 miles long, and that figure ignores our Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, which are proximate to Mexico and Central America. Fencing and patrolling a border sound like straightforward measures, but in practice are extremely costly; imagine the interruptions in the extensive commerce between the United States and Mexico that would ensue from erecting a Berlin Wall, with checkpoints at which vehicles are carefully searched, between the two countries.
If all Americans were required to carry biometric identification, if any clandestine entry into the United States were punished as a serious crime, and if the employment of an illegal alien were made a federal felony with a mandatory minimum punishment of 10 years in prison, the problem of illegal immigration would be solved more or less overnight, and the millions of illegal immigrants would be on their way back to Mexico and Central America (and in lesser numbers to China and other poor countries that supply us with many illegal immigrants). This exodus--this de facto deportation of the illegal immigrant population--would disrupt the economies both of the United States and of Mexico.
Once something is identified as a problem, Americans, not being fatalists, insist that there be a solution. But there is only one worthwhile solution to this particular problem, and it is one over which Americans have little control. The solution is for Mexico and the other poor countries from which illegal immigrants come to become rich. As soon as per capita income in a country reaches about a third of the American level, immigration from that country dries up. Emigration is very costly emotionally as well as financially, given language and other barriers to a smooth transition to a new country, and so is frequent only when there are enormous wealth disparities between one's homeland and a rich country like the United States. The more one worries about illegal immigrants, the more one should favor policies designed to bring about greater global income equality.