The Issue:


Current U.S. law makes it unlawful for foreign nationals to enter or stay in the country without authorization. Despite this clear provision of law, an estimated 11.4 million people live in the United States without authorization.

Our broken immigration system needs common sense reforms, starting with internal enforcement, strengthened border security, and targeted reforms to reform our legal immigration system. Congress must reject amendments to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Spending Bill that undermines border security by changing the definition of asylum, formalizing “catch and release,” and defending amnesty over the rule of law.

Our Position

Heritage Action supports immigration-related legislation that addresses these four principles: enforcing U.S. immigration law, securing our border, opposing amnesty, and implementing merit-based legal immigration reform.

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ENLIST Act (H.R. 60) Claims and Responses

In January, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) introduced a bill that would provide legal status to illegal immigrants if they join the military. The Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training (ENLIST) Act (H.R. 60) would allow "Dreamers" to receive lawful permanent resident (LPR) status in exchange for military service.

While promoted by some of its supporters as a solution to our military preparedness problem, the ENLIST Act is amnesty—little more than a backdoor promise of citizenship for those who came here illegally. The bill would further damage our broken immigration system by putting those in violation of the law ahead of those who want to come to our country legally. It is difficult to argue that such an arrangement advances U.S. national security objectives. Conservatives should oppose the ENLIST Act and fight any effort by Rep. Denham or others to attach the bill to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) later this year.

Below are some commonly made claims and straightforward conservative responses:

Claim: The ENLIST Act does not provide backdoor amnesty, only lawful permanent resident status.

Response: Once an illegal immigrant acquires LPR status through this bill, they are eligible to apply for citizenship on an expedited basis and become citizens within months. Heritage Foundation Senior Legal Fellow Charles Stimson explains:

"[S]ections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allow LPRs to apply for expedited naturalization either after one year of military service or after one day of military hostilities, respectively. Thus, if the ENLIST Act were passed in its current form, illegal immigrants who signed up for military service would obtain LPR status immediately and, after one day of service during conflict, could apply for expedited citizenship. That process takes only a matter of months."

Claim: Earning legal status by serving in the military is not amnesty. 

Response: The ENLIST Act turns the notion of an all-volunteer military on its head. Wade Miller, a Marine combat veteran and South Central Regional Coordinator for Heritage Action, explains it would "undermine the important social narrative that allows our all-volunteer military to thrive, namely that service is a benefit, as opposed to a punishment." Miller continues:

"It is a privilege to serve in America's all volunteer force, and that service instills some of the most valuable virtues a citizen could hope for in a Republic. Military service also builds within one the vital moral warrior ethos that every peaceful society must maintain. The United States government also spends significant amounts of money to impart enduring skills on military servicemen and women. The financial compensation for my time in the military pales in comparison to the betterment of my character that military service and combat experience gave me.

"In proposing the exchange of amnesty for military service, politicians not only create the wrong incentives for military service and potentially expose security risks, they also undermine the military's service-oriented ethos."

Claim: The ENLIST Act does nothing to incentivize more illegal immigrants to come to the United States. 

Response: While the current version of the bill only applies to those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children prior to 2012, it suggests the Federal Government is not serious about enforcing its immigration laws and makes similar legislation in the future more likely to pass. Congress should fix our broken immigration system and enforce the law, not pass one-off legislation like the ENLIST Act that exacerbate the problems.

Claim: The ENLIST Act does not harm U.S. national security objectives. 

Response: This bill does nothing to advance U.S. national security objectives. Instead, it undermines the military by unnecessarily dragging the controversial immigration debate into the military and the brave men and women who serve it. Based on the experience involving the temporary amnesty that President Obama instituted through executive fiat known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Stimson suggests vetting could also be problematic:

"This program, however, has not met its already modest requirements. Specifically, DACA recipients are supposed to pass a background check, but after just a couple of months, DHS began conducting "lean and lite" background checks, urging employees to accept all DACA recipients, explicitly waiving rules regarding proof of identity, and even stopping background checks altogether."

Claim: The ENLIST Act helps our military preparedness. 

Response: It is true that the U.S. military is experiencing a more challenging recruiting environment, but the answer is not a backdoor amnesty program that itself raises national security challenges. Increasing the pool of potential applicants to illegal immigrants is a short-sighted answer to the ongoing readiness issue the military faces. Congress should instead focus its efforts on adequately funding the military to address readiness issues.

Claim: President Trump wants Congress to pass the ENLIST Act to help improve our military readiness. 

Response: Legislation is unnecessary. Section 329 (8 U.S.C. 1440) gives the president the authority to provide the same citizenship to aliens who have served in the military during "armed conflict with a hostile foreign force." Thus, when we need people during times of war, the president can use this provision to attract non-citizens (legal and illegal) into the military.

Claim: The ENLIST Act is consistent with long standing military policy that rewards foreign nationals with citizenship if they serve in the military.

Response: Historically, U.S. military policy has rewarded legal immigrants with citizenship for serving in the armed forces, not illegal immigrants as clearly laid out in Sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The U.S. has and continues to welcome foreigners throughout the world who desire to come to our shores legally; especially those who want to serve in the military. The ENLIST Act violates generous U.S. immigration laws by putting those who violated the law ahead of those who are waiting in line to come to the country legally.

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Jun 27, 2017


Immigration Reform Brief

History of DACA (and Conservative/Constitutional Critique)

Current U.S. law, written and passed by Congress and signed by the President, makes it unlawful for foreign nationals to enter or stay in the country without authorization. Despite this clear provision of law, an estimated 11 million people live in the United States without authorization.

In 2012, then-President Obama—under tremendous political pressure from his base—issued a memo through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) titled “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA). DACA sought to grant temporary legal status to individuals who 1) were less than 31 years old, 2) came to the United States before their 16th birthday, and 3) were living in the country since June 15, 2007. Though roughly 1.7 million illegal immigrants were eligible for the program, only about 800,000 applied for and received deferred status. Recipients would be required to work or go to school, but could ultimately defer their deportation for two years. They could renew their status.

Conservative legal groups challenged these actions in court as an unconstitutional overreach of executive power. Several states sued the federal government, and appeals courts ultimately ruled in favor of states to enjoin (or prohibit) an extension of DACA. Since the issuance of the DACA memo, and during debate over a larger amnesty, the number of people unlawfully crossing the U.S. border has increased significantly.

In 2013, debate began on a comprehensive immigration bill (the now infamous “Gang of Eight” proposal) that would have included amnesty for most of the unlawful immigrant population, including “Dreamers.” The Senate passed the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, which included a partial codification of the 2012 DACA memo (known as the “DREAM Act,” which the Senate failed to pass in 2010), but the proposal died in the House.

What the Trump administration did

In response to another impending lawsuit against DACA, the Trump administration officially rescinded the unconstitutional Obama-era program on September 5th, with an effective enforcement date of March 5, 2018. Rescinding DACA fulfills a key campaign promise made by then-candidate Donald Trump to end the program and begin enforcing U.S. immigration laws. By including a six-month delay, the Trump administration is providing Congress with an opportunity to address the larger issue of illegal and legal immigration legislatively.

Effective immediately, the government stopped accepting new applicants for the DACA program—capping the program’s participation at roughly 690,000.

Possible Congressional Action  

The day after his administration announced the end of DACA, President Trump told reporters that he’d “like to see something where we have good border security, and we have a great DACA transaction where everybody is happy and now they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

In setting up a straight DACA codification for border security trade, the president risks repeating the mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law provided amnesty for 2.7 million illegal immigrants and the promise of future border security and internal enforcement. As President Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese III wrote in 2013, the 1986 amnesty “encourage[d] millions more to risk entering the country illegally in the hope that one day they, too, might receive amnesty.”

Americans witnessed this dynamic in full force as the Obama administration’s unlawful DACA program came into effect and Congress debated a more sweeping amnesty in 2013. As The Heritage Foundation explained in 2014, DACA was “creating a powerful magnet for more illegal immigration, since children and their families have hope that they might receive some sort of amnesty, or at least not be deported, if they make it into the U.S.”   

A simple trade would also ignore another major flaw in our nation’s immigration system: family-based chain migration policies. As The Heritage Foundation previously wrote, DACA—or the DREAM Act—would allow illegal immigrants that gain legal status to “convert to non-conditional status immediately (and use his green card as a platform to bring in family members).”

Conservatives have long-opposed family-based chain migration policies, preferring instead to move to a skills or merit-based immigration system. Senator Tom Cotton—the Senate’s top immigration hawk—told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that failure to fix America’s legal immigration systems means legalizing DACA recipients “creates a whole new class of people who will then be eligible for a green card and citizenship—namely, the extended family members of those who will receive legal status who can, through chain migration, get legal status themselves.”

Rather than granting sweeping amnesty, as many on the left demand, it is imperative the executive and legislative branches learn from past mistakes, and work together to build a national consensus for an immigration policy that makes sense for all 320 million Americans, not only a sympathetic group put into an untenable situation because former President Obama illegally bypassed Congress.

Pathway to Conservative Immigration Reform

One of the most important lessons of the 1986 amnesty was that in order for immigration reform to be successful, it must be accomplished through a step-by-step process.

First, enforce U.S. immigration law: The Trump administration is already beginning to enforce current U.S. immigration laws and should continue to do so. Deporting illegal immigrants, denying amnesty and simply enforcing the law sends a strong signal to potential offenders not to enter or stay in the U.S. illegally.

Second, secure our borders: Congress should approve funding to build more secure fencing along the southern border and implement a comprehensive surveillance system to monitor the border that includes cameras, sensors and drones. Doing so will make it more difficult to enter the U.S. illegally.

Third, crack down on unauthorized labor: Improve internal enforcement through E-Verify, while prosecuting companies who hire illegal immigrants.   

Fourth, defund sanctuary cities: Municipalities who wish to disobey federal immigration laws should be denied federal security grants.

Fifth, reform the legal immigration system: Move away from the blanket chain-migration and replace it with a rational, skills based-migration system. There are lessons from the Canadian and Australian models that might best serve the United States’ immigration system.

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Sep 12, 2017


Proposed Amnesty Growing in Size

Washington—According to reports, the Trump administration will propose allowing up to 1.8 million illegal immigrants that came to America before they were adults to gain legal status and ultimately citizenship.  A White House official reportedly said the plan includes “the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] population, plus individuals who failed to apply for DACA but otherwise met the requirements, as well as adjustments in time frame that would bring the total maximum population size to 1.8 million.” Heritage Action released the following statement from Chief Executive Officer Michael A. Needham:

“Amnesty comes in many forms, but it seems they all eventually grow in size and scope. Any proposal that expands the amnesty-eligible population risks opening pandora’s box, and could lead to a Gang of Eight style negotiation. That should be a non-starter.”

Last week, the Trump administration threw cold water on a left-wing Senate proposal that would have granted citizenship for over 3 million illegal immigrants, noting the number was “nearly five times larger than the population of DACA recipients.” Heritage Action’s Needham continued:

“If any amnesty negotiations are to take place, they should remain extremely limited in scope so as not to encourage further illegal immigration. It is imperative President Trump hold firm to his commitment to eliminate chain migration. Voters overwhelmingly agree with his position that immigration should be based on merit, not whether a distant relative holds a green card.”


Real Clear Politics: Why Conservatives Are Proposing a DACA Deal
Fox News Sunday: Shutdown Showdown Is Actually About Chain Migration, Not DACA
Heritage Action: Democrats’ Amnesty Shutdown
Heritage Action: Time to Shut Down Chain Migration
Heritage Action: Harvard Poll Finds Public Supports Ending Chain Migration

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Jan 25, 2018


Harvard Poll Finds Public Supports Ending Chain Migration

Washington—The Monthly Harvard-Harris Poll (January 17-19, 2018) asked voters if they thought “immigration priority for those coming to the U.S. should be based on a person's ability to contribute to America as measured by their education and skills or based on a person having relatives in the U.S.” The results were overwhelming. 79 percent of respondents said immigration should be based on a person's ability to contribute to America, and only 21 percent said immigration should be based on a person having relatives in the U.S. Heritage Action released the following statement from Chief Executive Officer Michael A. Needham:

“If the three day shutdown didn’t reveal just how out of touch congressional Democrats are with the American people, the new Harvard poll certainly does. Voters overwhelmingly agree with President Trump’s position that immigration should be based on merit, not whether a distant relative holds a green card. The left’s insistence that we must grant amnesty to millions and maintain our current broken immigration system is a non-starter for the American people.”

On Fox News Sunday last week, Needham made clear the government shutdown was “actually about chain migration.” He continued:

“The president has been very clear from the very start that when he first said we'll have a six-month reprieve on DACA, that one of the things he wants is an end to chain migration. From a policy perspective, he's exactly right about that. We should have a system that allows people generously into America who can provide merit, and do it the same way Canada and Australia do it. Instead, we have this crazy system where people are allowed to bring distant relatives like cousins into the country, and that's the issue they are shutting the government over.”


Real Clear Politics: Why Conservatives Are Proposing a DACA Deal
Fox News Sunday: Shutdown Showdown Is Actually About Chain Migration, Not DACA
Heritage Action: Democrats’ Amnesty Shutdown
Heritage Action: Time to Shut Down Chain Migration

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Jan 23, 2018

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