Opponents of immigration overhaul legislation in the
Senate are warning that it could draw an influx of illegal
border crossers with phony documents who want to settle
permanently in the United States, repeating the fraud that
was rampant after passage of an immigration law in 1986.
Backers of the measure, already battling charges from
conservatives who say the proposal amounts to an amnesty,
acknowledge the problem and promise to fix it before the
bill becomes law.
The problem is that the legislation, which would
provide legal status to millions of people who entered the
country illegally before Jan. 1, 2007, would establish
loose standards for proving length of stay. Unless the
standards are toughened, critics contend, there may be a
rush to the border and a new flood of fraudulent
“All across Mexico and other countries, the word will
be vámonos – let's go,” said George Grayson, an
immigration expert at the College of William & Mary.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, has been broadly
critical of the legislation, which was forged in a
hard-fought compromise between Democrats led by Sen.
Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republicans led by
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and joined by the White House.
“It sounds like an open invitation to fraud,” Cornyn
The budding controversy reflects the inherent
difficulty in establishing standards of proof for millions
of people who have been living with false identities in an
The issue has been largely ignored as public attention
has focused primarily on what critics call an amnesty and
advocates say is the only practical way of solving the
problems associated with a huge and steadily expanding
population of illegal immigrants drawn primarily by
low-wage jobs in service industries.
The immigration overhaul is intended to bring the
estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of the
shadows. Kyl acknowledged he is concerned that number
could grow because of fraud.
Kyl said recently that he wasn't sure how the problem
could be addressed, but it would be taken up along with
other flaws in the bill when the Senate returns after this
California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein also played a
central role in forging the proposal. In a written
response to questions from Copley News Service, Feinstein
defended the bill's language on documents as “part of the
carefully negotiated compromise.”
“It may not be perfect, but it reflects the balance
that must be struck between enforcement and the need to
bring workers out of the shadows,” she wrote.
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the
Department of Homeland Security, which will administer the
“That is the line we have to draw,” Baker said. “I'm
sure there will be mistakes on both sides of the line.”
Baker said Homeland Security is aware that some people
may be drawn into the country illegally by the hope of
buying phony documents that will open the door to
permanent residency in the United States.
“Obviously, we have to worry about the fact that people
will be attracted by the opportunity to commit fraud,” he
Baker said the ongoing buildup of the Border Patrol has
raised the probability that illegal crossers will be
detained. All detainees are fingerprinted, he said, and
that information is fed into a database against which
applicants for legalization will be checked.
Concerns about vulnerability to fraud are highlighted
against the background of problems that followed passage
of immigration legislation in 1986.
In addition to providing general amnesty to people who
had been in the country for five years, that legislation
created a Special Agricultural Worker amnesty for those
who had worked 90 days in the fields during the previous
The program soon became a target for widespread fraud.
The most notorious instance involved Mahmud Abouhalima,
an Egyptian who entered the country on a tourist visa in
1985 and worked illegally as a New York taxi driver after
his tourist visa expired. Abouhalima's application for
amnesty as an agricultural worker was approved and he
later was able to travel to Afghanistan, where he received
terrorist training. He later was convicted for his role in
planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Congress had expected about 375,000 people would seek
amnesty under the agricultural program, said Philip
Martin, an economist and immigration expert at the
University of California Davis. That estimate was far too
low; nearly 1.3 million people were granted amnesty. Many,
Martin said, bought notarized letters from people who
claimed to have employed them for the requisite period.
“A typical letter said the person had picked tomatoes
for 92 days in Stockton,” Martin said.
Such letters were often accepted even though the tomato
season doesn't last that long, he said.
The current Senate legislation allows applicants for a
Z visa, which would put holders on a path to citizenship,
to prove their length of stay with a variety of documents.
Among the acceptable documents are affidavits signed by a
non-relative. Others include records from employers,
unions or day-labor centers.
Grayson said he expected the program's administrators
to be flooded by newly arrived illegal immigrants armed
with phony documents. He noted that document
counterfeiters have far more sophisticated tools now than
what was available in 1986.
“Two decades ago was the Orville and Wilbur Wright era
of falsifying documents,” he said, referring to the
aviation pioneers. “Now we're into the stealth bomber