TOPICS > Politics

Tightening Borders

January 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: These immigrants and their families are about to become U.S. citizens. Experts say that American attitudes toward immigrants, in the past often hostile, turned around as the economy improved and jobs were plentiful during the late 1990s. Hoping to take advantage of that welcoming attitude, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox came to Washington in early September, and pushed hard for liberalization of America’s immigration laws. And Congress listened sympathetically. Fox asked for quick action on amnesty for Mexicans living without documentation in the U.S., and easier entry for Mexicans.

PRESIDENT VICENTE FOX: The agreement that we seek would establish a higher ceiling for permanent visas awarded to Mexican citizens coming to this country, and it would also expand opportunities for Mexican workers to obtain temporary work visas.

SPENCER MICHELS: President Bush appeared ready to support Fox’s requests.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s obviously a sense of urgency in the President’s message. I hear that sense of urgency, and my administration is willing to work as hard as we possibly can to get something done in a constructive fashion.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fox’s visit brought high hopes to university of California Latin American specialist and labor economist Harley Shaiken, and those who favor a policy more favorable to prospective immigrants, Mexicans and others.

HARLEY SHAIKEN, University of California: It was quite an electric moment when President Fox addressed the joint session of Congress at the beginning of September, because he put a very bold vision on the table. A more open immigration policy as a step towards a more open relation between Mexico and the United States. The importance of the Latino vote gave him a very receptive audience in President Bush and in the Congress.

SPENCER MICHELS: But when foreign terrorists– most in this country on legal visas–struck, the immigration picture changed.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: Two things happened after September 11. First, the attention of the Congress, the president and most of the nation is in issues of security, closing borders, not opening them. Second, the recession that was in the works in any case, has become more severe and is here earlier.

SPENCER MICHELS: 30 million immigrants live permanently in America, and many spend hours in line at the Immigration and Naturalization Service to work out complex problems, including legalization of their status. For many, the whole process became more burdensome after 9/11.

WOMAN: I think everything is slowing down, so it’s kind of hard to, you know, get some or any response from the INS.

MAN: I’m worried about there are a lot of people who are innocent people. They are going to suffer because of immigration law.

SPENCER MICHELS: Guadalupe Ortiz came from Mexico in 1987, with her husband, a farm worker, and three sons. Now, Ortiz is eligible to become a citizen. She says she fears September 11 will make life even harder for many immigrants, who have already had problems with the INS.

GUADALUPE ORTIZ: We’ve been waiting and waiting for so long. That’s the… Our main concern is the waiting list. It takes forever.

SPENCER MICHELS: America, she argues, should not impose additional barriers against most immigrants in the name of security.

GUADALUPE ORTIZ: What are we going to do? Just deny the right to be here because of… Of you know, the terrorism and a lot of this? This is good people. They’re in this country for, in a lot of cases, 15-20 years, working hard. They’re not criminals, they’re working hard everyday, trying to raise their… their family or sending money to Mexico.

SPENCER MICHELS: The INS says its operations have not changed nor slowed down since the attack, though it is being more careful at the borders. The agency processes eight million applications of various kinds a year. The State Department, concerned about security, has refused to grant visas to 20,000 refugees who had previously been approved for entry. Recent polls show that 58 percent of Americans want immigration reduced, a sharp rise from before the attacks. And that has buoyed the hopes of groups like Californians for population stabilization, which ran this TV spot in Santa Barbara.

SPOKESMAN: But Old Glory needs some help, starting at our borders and embassies. It’s time to limit the number of foreign nationals crossing our borders, and reduce immigration, so we know who’s coming and going.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rick Oltman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform says the terrorist attacks have given vindication to the movement for reduced immigration.

RICK OLTMAN, Federation of American Immigration Reform: There’s no joy in that vindication, but many of the people that have been involved in immigration reform for years are saying, “now is our opportunity to get the laws passed and to get the political will, we’ve already had the will of the American people.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Oltman and FAIR want to reduce the number of immigrants admitted for reasons unrelated to terrorism.

RICK OLTMAN: We have 280 million people living in this country. At the current rate, we’re going to have close to a half a billion people in this country by the middle of the century. Our schools are bursting at the seams, we have lots of Americans here to do the jobs.

SPENCER MICHELS: While prior to September 11, groups like FAIR were having a hard time getting heard, now they believe Congress will listen to them. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration, agrees that now is not the time to grant legal status to immigrants who came here illegally.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: If you do it for Mexicans you are going to have to do it for everybody. What President Fox was talking about was an amnesty, and I don’t think an amnesty is the best interests of American immigration policy. I think it has to be remembered that the United States accepts more immigrants legally every year than all of the industrialized countries put together.

SPENCER MICHELS: Feinstein says concerns about terrorism are a top priority now.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We’ve got to put the kind of safeguards in the system that can keep out people who would do this nation great harm. And that’s got to be the top of the agenda. If it isn’t, we’re extraordinary fools.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt met in Mexico recently with president fox. The two Democrats said they would forge ahead with immigration reform and some form of amnesty– or, as its called, regularization –next year.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: If you are regularizing a status, you are also understanding that the people you are dealing with are not terrorists, but are folks who have followed the laws of the United States and have earned that status.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even some immigration advocates say there’s still a good chance for eventual reform despite the attacks. Mark Silverman of the Immigrant Legal Resources Center:

MARK SILVERMAN, Immigrant Legal Resources Center: I don’t think it will have any long-term effects. I think it will delay immigration reform that was possible in 2002. Now the earliest it will be possible be after the elections of 2002 and 2003.

SPOKESPERSON: Please raise your right hand.

SPENCER MICHELS: Every two weeks in San Francisco, 1,500 immigrants become potential voters when they are sworn in as American citizens.

GROUP: I do.

SPOKESPERSON: Congratulations. ( Applause )

SPENCER MICHELS: Nationwide the numbers are at record levels, nearly a million new naturalized citizens a year at last count. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Congress and the President will have to decide if that’s going to change.