Justin Amash

Justin Amash's Confusing and Contradictory Immigration Record

His mixed immigration record might be good for a Republican, but it's not exactly impressive for a Libertarian.


The Libertarian Party (L.P.) has always stuck up for mobility rights unencumbered by political barriers—in other words, for open borders. If its commitment to economic freedom has distinguished it from the Democratic Party, its commitment to the freedom of movement (along with civil liberties and reproductive rights) has distinguished it from the Republican Party. "A truly free market requires the free movement of people, not just products and ideas," the party platform's immigration plank declares.

So one key question for the five-term Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who recently joined the L.P., is whether he will advance this commitment or dilute it if he succeeds in getting the party's presidential nomination. He called out President Donald Trump's hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric when his erstwhile Republican comrades either stayed silent or played along. When Trump called immigrants "invaders" and contemptuously told Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.)—who emigrated from Somalia as a child—to return "home," Amash voted in favor of a resolution condemning these comments.

But his voting record on legislation and explanations for his votes paint a mixed picture at best. Despite his well-deserved reputation as one of those rare politicians who puts principle above party or president, he's got a maddening habit of splitting the baby when it comes to immigration. He's certainly less restrictionist than every Republican out there right now, including even self-styled Trump nemesis Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah), who during his own failed presidential bid in 2012 mused about making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they'd "self-deport." But notwithstanding Amash's other virtues, he seems less pro-immigration than his libertarian rivals.

This was evident during Saturday's L.P. presidential debate in Kentucky, when Jacob Hornberger, the founder of the libertarian think tank Future of Freedom Foundation, raved about the party's 1990 platform that unambiguously called for the "elimination of all restrictions on immigration [and] the abolition of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol." He castigated Amash, noting that the congressman claimed to "love free enterprise" but went along with the "evil, immoral, socialist, central planning, Republican-Democratic system of immigration controls which has brought death and suffering to countless people" and resulted in a "brutal police state consisting of highway checkpoints and other initiations of force against innocent people." Meanwhile, Jo Jorgensen, the 1996 L.P. nominee for vice president, promised to "immediately stop construction on President Trump's border wall boondoggle, and work to eliminate quotas on immigration so that anyone who wishes to come to America could do so legally." She asked Amash point blank if he would do the same. He refused to answer—just as he did repeated requests from Reason for an interview for this piece.

In public comments two years ago, Amash noted that it is "important" for America to remain a "welcoming country" where immigrants like his dad, a Palestinian refugee from Ramallah, "feel they have the opportunity to come and start a new life." A few weeks ago, he told Reason's Nick Gillespie that he "supports immigration" and wants to "fix our immigration system so that people can come here lawfully."

Still, when he was a Republican in Congress, he too often ended up on the pro-immigration side for narrow procedural reasons, not fundamental principled ones. Indeed, Amash repeatedly said he agreed with several restrictionist ends and disagreed merely with the means deployed to achieve them.

In a 2013 letter Amash co-signed in support of Sen. Rand Paul's efforts to elevate the GOP's tone on immigration (back before Paul found his inner restrictionist), Amash said that immigration reform should be treated like a "three-legged stool" that combined expanded legal immigration with enhanced border security by "both the physical border and the 'virtual' border of visa enforcement." Last year, even as he became the sole Republican to join a Democratic bill to stop Trump from declaring a national emergency to seize funds to build his wall (while criticizing his fellow Republicans for trading "massive, wasteful spending" in exchange for wall funding), he assured everyone that he doesn't "have an inherent objection to a border wall."

As for visa enforcement, he says he's "skeptical" of E-Verify, a program that requires employers to check whether their hires have work authorization against a federal database, because enforcing immigration laws is the government's job and private businesses shouldn't be asked to do it for them. But that opens the question of how far he is prepared to let the government go to do this job. Is it acceptable for the IRS to conduct audit raids (as it did under President Barack Obama) or for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to conduct physical raids on businesses (as it did under Presidents George W. Bush and now Trump) to ferret out undocumented immigrants?

Amash's record has also been mixed when it comes to defending sanctuary jurisdictions. Last year, he voted against the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act, a punitive law that sought to strip certain federal funds from sanctuary cities that refused to cooperate with Uncle Sam's deportation efforts. But his objections did not center around anything morally objectionable about this particular bill, just that it went "too far." In fact, he went out of his way to assert that in the past he had "voted to defund sanctuary cities."

In the same vein, he voted against Kate's Law, which was named after the California woman accidentally shot by an unauthorized immigrant who was later acquitted on murder charges. That law sought to strip immigrants accused of illegal reentry—a felony—of the right to challenge their removal order while they were being criminally tried. Amash, to his credit, noted that eliminating this right was unconstitutional. Yet he did not go so far as to question the criminalization of unauthorized entries in the first place, which should have been a no-brainer for a self-described small-l libertarian.

Among Amash's most inspired actions as a congressman was his vote two years ago against a Republican plan to put Democrats on the spot by forcing them to vote on a resolution supporting ICE, an agency with a history of brutal border enforcement. So when Trump implemented his zero-tolerance border policies and started separating babies and other children from Central American migrant moms seeking asylum, the progressive left joined longstanding (and admittedly unpopular) libertarian calls to abolish ICE. The Republicans' resolution tried to exploit that, praising the "heroic law enforcement officers who make sacrifices every day to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and protect our safety and security" and daring Democrats to vote against it. Amash condemned his fellow Republicans and demanded to know why a party that has historically counseled vigilance against an overweening federal government would "treat a federal agency as though its beyond reproach and reform." But he did not go so far as to join calls to abolish ICE.

As for zero-tolerance border enforcement, all Amash could bring himself to say was that the government shouldn't forcibly separate families seeking asylum in the United States "unless absolutely necessary." One would be hard-pressed to find any statement by Amash noting why providing asylum was a humanitarian imperative, particularly for a nation founded by people fleeing persecution.

Also praiseworthy was Amash's slam of Trump's so-called Muslim travel ban in 2017, which barred entry for all refugees for 120 days and barred entry for foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. Even as most other Republicans stayed mum, Amash called the ban "unlawful" and "extreme." He beseeched Trump to work with Congress if he wanted to change immigration law. But here again, Amash diluted his message by acknowledging the need for more vetting of refugees, despite the facts that refugees at the time were already being subjected to a multi-agency, multi-year review and that the number of Americans killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee since 1980 is exactly zero.

Since then, Trump has gutted the refugee program that Amash's own dad used to come to the country, slashing the annual refugee cap from 110,000 during Obama's term to 18,000, an all-time low. But since this is within Trump's executive authority, Amash hasn't bothered to really protest; it's as if only the legality of the president's actions matter, not their morality.

Amash hasn't just hemmed and hawed when opposing anti-immigration proposals. He's also slapped down pro-immigration measures for unclear reasons.

Amash claims he supports the legalization of Dreamers—folks who were brought to this country as minors without proper authorization and have been here ever since with hardly any contact or time spent in their birth land. But last year he voted against the American Dream and Promise Act, which would have created a path to lawful permanent residence and eventual citizenship for Dreamers who met certain stringent conditions. If the Supreme Court this summer upholds Trump's decision to scrap the Obama-era Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which handed Dreamers temporary legal status, Trump could eject them from the country en masse.

The bill never made it to the Senate, but Amash's vote is puzzling since he criticized Obama for using his executive authority to create DACA—and then Trump, too, when he used his authority to eliminate the program. Amash urged Trump to work with Congress, yet when Congress, which has abdicated the issue for two decades, took a stab at protecting Dreamers, Amash balked, even as seven of his fellow Republicans voted for it.

Amash also voted for an amendment that prohibited funds for the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program because the program was extended to DACA recipients. This creative program, which hasn't escaped Trump's assaults, is the brainchild of a conservative Federalist Society lawyer who received the MacArthur Genius Grant for it. It allowed the Army to recruit legal immigrants who have skills considered to be of vital national interest and give them a path to permanent residency and citizenship. But Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, dubbed the extension of the program to DACA holders "amnesty" and urged Republicans to vote for an amendment to defund it. That's exactly what Amash did.

Amash also voted "no" on last year's Farm Workforce Modernization Act after he'd quit the GOP. This bill would have expanded the H-2A visa program and allowed farmers to not just hire more foreign guest workers but to do so for the full year, instead of only seasonally. It would have also permitted undocumented aliens to obtain permanent residence if they had worked in domestic agriculture for at least 10 years and were willing to continue working in the industry for an additional four years. The bill contained an ill-advised E-Verify mandate for farmers, and that's certainly an affront to civil liberties. But it would suggest a strange and selective punctiliousness if that's what turned Amash against the bill, given his support for a wall, defunding sanctuary cities, and enhanced refugee vetting.

All of this (and more) has earned Amash a career score of 81 percent—a solid B+—and a recent score of 66 percent from NumbersUSA, a rabidly restrictionist outfit.

Amash's immigration record might be heroic for a Republican, but it is tame by libertarian standards—and confusing, too. He has repeatedly tried to reassure libertarians that he intends to "earn" the party's nomination by addressing concerns and explaining himself. If he's serious about that, he ought to clarify where exactly he stands on an issue that is central for his new party and that is going to be a major national issue as restrictionist forces ramp up to turn Trump's current temporary pause on immigration into a permanent one.