There have been a number of polls showing plurality and even majority support for legalizing illegal immigrants who pass background checks, pay fines, learn English, and jump through other administrative hoops. So does that mean, as some hope, that “earned legalization” or a “path to citizenship” will prove more popular than amnesty?
I think there are two reasons to doubt this. First, very few amnesties — whether they are tax amnesties, draft amnesties, or amnesties for illegal immigrants — are totally unconditional. What we are talking about here is a conditional amnesty. Second, every major piece of “comprehensive” reform legislation over the last few years has contained these kinds of requirements, in addition to promises of increased enforcement, rather than offering blanket amnesty. But people have rightly opposed these bills as amnesties nevertheless.
Why? Because it is administratively not workable to offer a path to legalization for 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants that actually satisfies all these requirements in a short period of time with large immigration backlogs already in place. So on careful inspection, the background checks and other requirements for legalization turn out to be much shoddier than what the public actually supports. When these details are exposed, support for an idea that polls well in the abstract collapses in practice.