ON THE BORDERS
OCTOBER 1, 1996
In the shadow of the kickoff to the welfare experiment were significant changes in another area of social policy: immigration. Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to two experts.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yesterday Congress passed and President Clinton signed an immigration bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Among other key measures, the bill would double the size of the Border Patrol over the next five years and stiffen penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud, establish pilot programs so that employers can voluntarily check the legal status of prospective workers, increase the income level required for sponsors of immigrants to a minimum of 125 percent of the poverty level, place a one-year time limit on those applying for political asylum, and make it easier to remove people seeking asylum with false documents or no documents. For reaction to the new law, we're joined by the executive directors of two groups on different sides of the immigration issue. Frank Sharry heads the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favored cuts in immigration. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Give me your reaction, Mr. Sharry, in general to the immigration bill.
FRANK SHARRY, National Immigration Forum: In general, the bill contains many sensible measures to try to deal with illegal immigration, and it focuses those efforts at our borders and at the workplace. And we can disagree over whether they're going too far or not going far enough, but I think what we're seeing is that there is now a consensus in the country illegal immigration as distinct from legal immigration is a problem. The federal government has primary responsibility to do a better job, and it's focusing in the border in the workplace as opposed to the school yard that was a measure that would have forced kids out of school who are here illegally; that was rejected. So I think while we have problems with the bill, and there are some measures that we object to, overall I think it focuses on the right problem and does it in a fairly modest way.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Focuses on the right problem?
MARK KRIKORIAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Well, I don't think so. My concern, Charlayne, is that this bill, unlike the original versions introduced by Sen. Simpson and Congressman Smith, which had serious measures in them intended to deal with illegal immigration, has been eviscerated, and what we have left is really a token bill that has some baby steps toward immigration control but doesn't really deal with the important issues that need to be grappled with if illegal immigration is ever going to be brought under control.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let's take a look at some of the baby steps, and then we could get to the ones that you think are the ones that ought to be gotten to. What about the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol--you just mentioned that--over the next five years--why is that important?
MR. SHARRY: Well, clearly to stop illegal immigration before it happens is the top priority of the federal government. And the way to do that is to deploy sufficient numbers of well trained and accountable Border Patrol agents at the major crossing points. And the Immigration Service over the last few years has made a strong effort to do so, and it's bearing--it's producing some results, so I think that it's--it's another step forward in really trying to prevent illegal immigration before it happens.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. Definitely. The problem, though, is that illegal immigration is more than just people sneaking across the border. Only about half of illegal immigrants who come here to live permanently come illegally across the border. The other half come in legally on visas, and then simply never go home. So turning off the magnet of jobs that attracts illegal immigrants is at least as important as border control.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what about, um, I'll skip down a couple of ones because there's one that establishes pilot programs so that employers can voluntarily check the legal status of prospective workers. Now tell me if that answers your concern.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I think in the long run that's the most important, um, element of this legislation, and the problem though is that it's a very limited kind of pilot program. It's only on a small scale, it's voluntary, and Congress is going to have to re-authorize this after a certain period of time for it to be permanent. So, um, my--the way I look at this is that it's a step in the right direction, but this is only the very first step toward turning off the magnet of jobs. That is what's really attracting illegal immigrants.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think about that, Mr. Sharry?
MR. SHARRY: Well, we're concerned it's a step in the wrong direction. The inevitable end of this path that these verification pilot projects lead us to is a national ID system or a national ID card. But we're concerned that that's overkill, that for Americans who want smaller government and more privacy, the idea of a federal government, it's going to have a database with cards on every American, and whether they're eligible to work, goes too far. We would prefer dealing with workplace enforcement by going after sweatshop operators and those employers who are deliberately hiring illegal immigrants in order to exploit them; we think that would be a better use of resources.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So what do you think the impact of this is? Because this part of it is voluntary, is that an issue?
MR. SHARRY: Yeah. I think essentially business interests wanted to make sure that it was voluntary, and I think that there is some legitimate criticism about how effective a voluntary system can be when those who break the law can opt out of it. I think what it is, though, is it's just foreshadowing of a much more intense debate about whether a secure national ID card or system is the answer. So these--this is sort of a half measure that's leading up to a real donnybrook over that issue.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see it that way?
MR. KRIKORIAN: No. I mean, I think this is, this is a strawman that Frank is bringing up. This does not lead inevitably to a national ID card. It may or may not, and we have one already called the Social Security card. It's not very secure but it serves that function. But the programs that the Congress has mandated and that the INS in a more limited form is already undertaking are not very intrusive and merely enable employers to verify the information they're already required to collect so that to make sure that the, the Social Security numbers or the alien information from people who are not citizens is correct. I mean, it's merely verifying what people already have to provide.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. There were several other measures--and I don't want to necessarily go into each one in detail--but just get your reaction generally--stiffen penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud, increase the income level required for sponsors of legal immigrants to a minimum of 125 percent of the poverty level. Taken together, are those baby steps?
MR. KRIKORIAN: I would consider them baby steps. They're steps in the right direction, there's no question about it, but they are secondary issues and would be important to be included in an immigration bill if the other, um, other measures that I would consider far more important were also included. So in that sense, they're a secondary priority.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I think that stiffening the penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud is fairly clear, but how do you feel about this one, increasing the income level to 125 percent of poverty? What exactly does that mean?
MR. SHARRY: Well, essentially it's trying to make sure that people make enough to support the people that they sponsor in. Now, it's a bit of a red herring. It was really a backdoor attempt to make sure that working families can't bring in their close family members. The percentages were set at a much higher rate earlier in the discussion, and just in the end game, the administration and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers weighed in and said, wait a minute, we rejected cuts in legal immigration, let's not do it through the back door. So these--the way this provision is constructed, it won't have a big impact on legal immigration. If people are concerned about legal immigrants coming in and going on public assistance, as your previous piece showed, they're generally going to be denied in any case.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. What about the asylum aspects? It places a one-year limit on the people applying for asylum and makes it easier to remove people seeking asylum with false documents or no documents.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I think--I'm not sure how significant the long run impact is going to be as far as the numbers of people that it's going to affect, but it is an important reform. Many political asylum applications now are entered by illegal immigrants who are about to be deported, and their attorneys, having exhausted all other means of keeping their people in this country, attempt to concoct--it's the only word I can use--concoct bogus applications for political asylum. And what this does is it requires people to apply for political asylum within a year of coming in the country, rather than five or six or ten years later slapping their head and saying, wow, I should have applied for political asylum so as to avoid being deported.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You're shaking your head.
MR. SHARRY: Well, I disagree. I mean, these are life and death decisions, someone fleeing persecution comes to the United States, often doesn't speak English, may not even know that political asylum is a right they can enjoy. If they apply in the 13th month, they will be procedurally blocked from having their day in court and could, in fact, be deported to their persecutor. So we think that, you know, let's make sure that there's a, a highly regulated and expeditious asylum process, which I think is now in place, but these kinds of arbitrary deadlines and shotgun proceedings are going to lead to genuine refugees being deported.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. You mentioned earlier that some of the more controversial provisions of the bill have been dropped, like the one ending free education for illegal immigrant children. Is that a good thing?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, that provision, first of all just to make clear what it was, would not have ended public education for illegal immigrant children. It would only have allowed the states to, um, to, you know, make that option if they wanted to do it. I think, again, you can--there are arguments for and against that but I think that issue, like some of the other ones, is of secondary importance, and I think the one thing--I just wanted to get to this--the one provision that is not in here that Congress consciously removed but is the most important provision in reducing illegal immigration is measures to reduce legal immigration, because legal immigration is one of the engines that drives illegal immigration. You cannot have high levels of legal immigration without also bringing in high levels of illegal immigration. So this legislation is ultimately--even though it has some beneficial elements--is not going to succeed as it has been billed.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think, Mr. Sharry?
MR. SHARRY: Well, not surprisingly, I disagree again. I think the smartest thing that Congress did this year was reject in a bipartisan fashion cuts in legal immigration and reject the idea of forcing illegal immigrant school kids out of school and onto the streets. That was really a partisan wedge issue that some Republicans hoped would force Clinton into a veto just before the election and hurt him in California. It didn't work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. In the last few seconds we have here, does this end the issue or will it rise again?
MR. SHARRY: I think it's the beginning of an ongoing debate about immigration, but I think we're seeing the sketches of a consensus. Legal immigration, if it's regulated, is considered good. Illegal immigration is a problem, but we're not quite sure how to deal with it.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I think this, because it is not going to succeed in reducing illegal immigration, is inevitably going to lead to new measures in the future that will have to cut legal immigration and increase enforcement at the work site.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, gentlemen. We'll have to see. Thank you for joining us.