How bad is irregular-unauthorized-undocumented-illegal immigration, whatever you want to call it?

How bad for the migrants?

How bad for a liberal democracy?

My position is that it is bad enough to abolish. I think that it is bad enough that the goal of immigration policy ought to be to get rid of it altogether, forever.

It is bad for the migrants who must fear every encounter with government authorities. It is bad for them to be too afraid to complain about an abusive employer, seek a teacher’s help for a child, or report a crime. People do it because there are monetary rewards for them and for their families, but that does not mean that they are oblivious to the dangers and distrust. It is necessarily a circumstance that corrodes dignity.

And for all those reasons it is even worse for the host society. All kinds of societal functions require a populace that is able to denounce wrongdoing. Just consider the labor market. Both efficiency and benevolence suffer when certain workers can be obliged to accept below-market wages or violations of safety codes and fair conditions. This harms all workers and employers, particularly when it happens at the low end of the economic ladder where vulnerabilities on both sides are the greatest. The same applies to housing and many services.

If it is bad for everyone, then there is no need to assign blame. The migrants have violated the law. The authorities have not enforced the law. Employers have been directly complicit. Almost every consumer has benefited in some way from the cheap labor. Trying to parcel out blame does not advance consensus. More important, adjudicating fault is not a basis for a policy solution. The starting point of the conversation has to be that many parties have contributed to creating this circumstance.

However, it is not only bad; it is also wrong. It is wrong for migrants to have violated the law. And, it is wrong for a society to allow part of its population to live cut off from some of the essential rights and obligations that define it as a liberal democracy. The principle of equality is difficult to perfect, but the principle itself is eroded every time the population is segmented to create a group that is less equal than others.

So, if it is wrong, then it does not matter whether there are eleven million or just eleven people in this condition. And, if it is wrong, then the goal has to be to end it.

Joseph Carens’s proposal would take us exactly in the opposite direction. He proposes an amnesty that would apply primarily to irregular immigrants who have been in the United States for a substantial period of time—something on the order of five to seven years. But this is not a one-shot deal, as was proposed in legislation considered by the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2007. Rather, he is suggesting this amnesty would be a permanent feature of American life. As such, it would perpetuate, even codify, the existence of a subservient and disenfranchised class of people within our borders.

That permanent civic underclass would be made up of all irregular immigrants who had not been here long enough to qualify for the amnesty he proposes. Anywhere from a quarter to a half of the unauthorized population would fall into this category depending on whether the illicit flows were running hard as they do during periods of economic expansion or were much reduced as they are during the current downturn.

According to Department of Homeland Security estimates, in January 2008 more than 4 million people out of an unauthorized population then estimated at 11.6 million would not qualify for Carens’s amnesty. These are precisely the most vulnerable and exploited migrants. They are the people with the weakest ties to communities and workplaces, the least knowledge of English and of American ways. They are often still indebted to smugglers, facing intimidation and coercion if they cannot make payments to the criminals who brought them across the border.

Moreover, Carens declares that his amnesty would not deny “a government’s moral and legal right to prevent entry in the first place and to deport those who settle without authorization, so long as these expulsions take place at a relatively early stage of residence.” In effect, his amnesty would declare open season on new arrivals. As the migrants of longer tenure gained legal status, all of the enforcement action would focus on the newcomers. It would be a Darwinian contest to see who survived long enough to qualify for the amnesty.

Instead of creating new segments of the population whose social, civic, and legal equality is compromised, changes in immigration policies should attempt to eliminate all forms of marginalization. That means establishing mechanisms of legal immigration sufficient to meet the economy’s demand for foreign workers and ensure the reunification of nuclear families. It also means creating enforcement mechanisms that will prevent future flows of unauthorized migration. In this context, it would also be essential to open a path to citizenship for the current population of irregular migrants as a one-time effort to clear away an unfortunate legacy of failed policies. These three elements were the core of the reform the Senate debated in the summer of 2007.

That debate ended in stalemate largely because there was no overarching vision of the goals of an immigration policy, and so the proposal was picked apart in disagreements over individual provisions. While there is much to applaud in Carens’s arguments, he, too, fails when it comes to describing an end state suitable to a democracy based on the principle of the equality of all peoples. In my view, one key characteristic of that end state is that no person under the jurisdiction of that democracy lives in a condition of compromised rights—not for seven years, not for seven days.