San Diego Union Tribune

April 9, 2006

Failed '86 immigration act hangs over Senate
Current debate involves emotions, credibility issues

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – The shadow of a 20-year-old federal policy debacle fell heavily over the Senate last week, aggravating the political pressure that ruptured efforts to pass an immigration bill.

In the most contentious immigration debate on Capitol Hill since passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Senate failed in its effort to redeem that now-infamous failure.

That law granted amnesty to 2.7 million people, but it was unable to discourage employers from tapping an inexhaustible supply of economic refugees, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Its legacy: snowballing illegal immigration, widespread public cynicism about the ability of the federal government to manage the border and swelling public agitation on both sides of the debate.

Temperatures are rising among advocates for illegal immigrants and grass-roots border watch groups such as the Minutemen.

Congress is seeking credibility. But how to be credible shaping a policy with so many flash points – political-economic, demographic, cultural and historic?

“You've got three choices. One, the status quo. Two, send everybody back. Three, let them earn citizenship,” said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose presidential ambitions further complicate the debate.

McCain is part of a Senate majority – centered on the Democrats – who want not only to legalize millions of immigrants but also to assure a steady supply of low-wage labor to the farmers, landscapers, restaurateurs, meat processors, construction contractors, hotel operators and others who have become dependent on illegal immigrants.

McCain calls the debate, which will resume when the Senate returns in two weeks from its Easter recess, “a defining moment in the history of the United States of America.”

Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have endorsed the concepts of McCain's push for sweeping legalization. But North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan has thundered against the proposal to provide work visas and a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers every year.

Dorgan calls it “total nonsense” and a betrayal of American workers.

McCain and his allies want to provide a direct path to citizenship for people here five years or more and a more complicated track for those here between two and five years. Those here less than two years would have to leave the country or risk deportation.

But skeptics warn that such a provision is an invitation to the document fraud that flooded the 1986 amnesty program, as labor contractors sold letters claiming to have employed immigrants long enough to make them eligible for the amnesty.

Now, they say, any illegal immigrant with $1,000 to spend probably will be able to acquire documents showing he has been here long enough to stay.

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said Thursday that he is determined to avoid a repeat of that failure.

“We ought to be tough on that and make sure that people prove (their tenure in the country) and in some way that it's verifiable,” he said. “It's got to be verifiable.”

But Martinez, a Cuban-American and the Senate's only immigrant, offered no details about verifiability, to the consternation of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has preached the lessons of 1986 throughout the Senate debate.

“Once again we have senators who want to be very specific about how they are going to be letting people in. But when it comes to promising to keep those out, they don't have much to say. They might as well put up a neon sign at the border saying, 'Come On In.' ”

Senate leaders have promised to renew their efforts when they return from the Easter recess in two weeks.

While they are off, immigrant advocates, galvanized by the success of massive nationwide protests last month, take to the streets again. Labor unions that organize workers in service industries have taken the lead in planning demonstrations in various cities tomorrow.

“We're helping pay for them. And we're turning out our members,” said Tom Snyder of UNITE-HERE, a labor organization. “It's clear that to move through this blockage, our elected leaders are going to have to feel a lot more heat.”

The most active immigration hawk in the Congress, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said he welcomes the demonstrations, particularly those in which the Mexican flag is prominently displayed.

“Demonstrations like that are wake-up calls because they tell Americans we have a problem,” said Tancredo, who himself is considering a run for president in 2008. He says his principal issue would be immigration.

»Next Story»