San Diego Union Tribune

May 7, 2006

Immigration bills concern some experts
Legalization plans pose big problems, they warn

By Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Massive demonstrations nationwide have helped propel legislation to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. But immigration experts and critics caution that the legislation, if enacted, could generate a legacy of unintended consequences.

Senate legislation would double legal immigration, legalize millions currently in the country illegally and open the border every year to hundreds of thousands of “guest workers.” The Senate debated the legislation in March and April but failed to complete action before going on a recess.

Crackdown or welcome for illegal immigrants?

Major provisions of HR 4437, which the House of Representatives passed in December:

Make illegal presence in the U.S. a felony.

Boost surveillance at the border.

Stiffen penalties for immigrant smuggling.

Construct 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border.

Require employers to verify worker immigration status.

Increase criminal penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Crack down on illegal immigrants who are members of gangs.

Major provisions of the bill under most active Senate consideration:

Illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years would receive a renewable work visa if they pay a $2,000 penalty and all back taxes, pass a criminal background check and learn English. They would be granted a chance to receive a green card, and eventual citizenship, if they stay employed and avoid major legal problems.

Illegal immigrants in the country less than five years but more than two years would have to report to a port of entry along the border to apply for one of the 450,000 green cards that will be available each year.

Illegal immigrants in the country for two years or less would be required to return to their native countries.

Up to 325,000 guest workers would be allowed in the country each year if employers are unable to fill jobs with American citizens or permanent residents.

Up to 1.5 million agricultural workers now in the United States illegally would be granted legal status and a path to citizenship over a five-year period.

The Border Patrol would be authorized to expand by 12,500 officers over a five-year period.

Tamper-proof identification cards would be required of all job seekers.
The House approved enforcement-only legislation in December that would make unlawful presence in the country a felony, boost efforts to stop illegal immigration at the border and toughen requirements for employers to verify the legal status of workers.

The contrast in approaches reflects public polarization over the issue. It's also consistent with the thrust of U.S. immigration policy in recent decades: pro-immigration but anti-immigrant.

“The policy isn't driven by a big-picture look at what is in the national interest; it's driven by the short-term political gains that politicians think they can reap,” said James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland.

Three key elements of the Senate legislation raise particular concern:

A permanent doubling of today's historically high levels of legal immigration, from roughly 1 million a year to 2 million a year. The provision has attracted surprisingly little attention.

Legalization of most of the estimated 12 million people illegally in the United States.

Guest worker programs that would allow hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and their families into the country each year and offer them an eventual path to citizenship.

Proponents argue that few of the 12 million people living here illegally will leave voluntarily and mass deportation is not feasible. For that reason, they say, legalization is necessary to draw the undocumented immigrants into society's mainstream. Guest worker programs, they say, give U.S. employers and foreign workers a humane and orderly alternative to mass illegal immigration.

Opponents decry the Senate's stealthy provision doubling legal immigration. Moreover, they denounce the legalization component as an amnesty that would reward illegal immigration. They also warn that a big guest worker program would erode incomes of low-wage workers, lead to more illegal immigration and create a vast, new servant class.

Some experts also question whether the federal government will be overwhelmed by the tens of millions of applications for various immigration benefits that the Senate legislation ultimately could generate.

The nation's only experience with a similar program was 20 years ago. Congress intended the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to shut the door on illegal immigration while creating a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 6 million illegal immigrants then living in the country.

Amnesty eventually was granted to 2.7 million of the 3 million people who applied. But the effort to halt illegal immigration never gained traction, and the illegal population ballooned to 12 million.

A major component of the program – designed for seasonal agricultural workers – was riddled with fraud. Some of those whose bids for amnesty were rejected filed a class-action lawsuit that was resolved only recently. And the crush of immigrants legalized under the 1986 act swamped the hapless Immigration and Naturalization Service in the mid-1990s, when many of them applied for citizenship.

The legalization program envisioned by the Senate could be twice the size of the 1986 program and would require either massive outsourcing or the hiring of a legion of federal workers, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to restrict immigration. He predicted high costs, huge backlogs and negligible oversight.

“How do you practically put the plumbing in place to make this work properly?” he asked. “There is a complete disconnect from reality.”

Krikorian and others expressed doubts that requirements for background checks, English language instruction and payment of past taxes would be enforced.

Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said application fees would pay for the new bureaucracy to run the programs. She dismissed the prospects for fraud.

In any case, she added, Krikorian's concerns, valid or not, are no excuse for denying undocumented immigrants a way out of illegality.

“We just have to do it,” she said of the administrative challenge.

Demographer Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the New York-based nonprofit philanthropic institution, said he had been perplexed that a huge increase in legal immigration like the one in the Senate legislation could go virtually unnoticed.

He noted that independent public opinion surveys commonly show that barely one voter in five supports increasing legal immigration. He cited a recent poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press that found 17 percent of those surveyed support increasing immigration.

Teitelbaum concluded that the public simply hasn't focused on the element of the Senate bill that would permanently double annual immigration levels. Most of the public debate has been sharply focused on the legalization and guest worker components.

“I don't think anybody has really looked at it,” he said.

Much of the increase would come from a boost in the number of visas to help employers hire foreign workers. The cap would grow from 140,000 a year to 290,000 a year. But family members would no longer count against the cap, so the actual number of people likely to enter under the category would grow to around 900,000 a year.

The version of the bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and a compromise under consideration also would increase the number of visas available to bring relatives to the United States by about 250,000 a year.

Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California Davis, expressed doubts that guest worker programs would curtail illegal immigration.

“It didn't work during the Bracero program,” he said, referring to an agricultural guest worker program from 1942 to 1964. “It didn't work because workers learn they can avoid paying fees by coming illegally, and employers learn that they can avoid costs by hiring illegal workers.”

Illegal immigration is unlikely to abate without substantial changes in the federal government's look-the-other-way approach to the hiring of undocumented workers.

“Just as with the accounting frauds, until you send people to jail it's hard to change behavior because people don't get the message that society regards this as a serious problem,” Martin said.

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