MARCH 26, 1996
In November 1994, Californians passed an initiative, Proposition 187, cutting off some health and social services, including access to public education to illegal aliens and their children. That initiative was put on "hold" by a federal court, but the vote helped set the stage for a national debate on immigration and major legislation in Congress. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: California's border with Mexico provides entry into the United States for thousands of illegal immigrants every year. They cross rivers on foot, travel in the trunks of cars, and sometimes read head-long into traffic at official checkpoints hoping to get across. Once across, illegal immigrants have access to low-paying jobs, free public education, and are eligible for many of the same health benefits available to poor U.S. citizens. An estimated 43 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants are in California. Consequently, when the House of Representatives considered changing America's policy toward immigrants, California's congressional delegation dominated the debate.
REP. JOHN DOOLITTLE, (R) California: If our state is illustrative of anything, it's that illegal immigration is seriously out of control and consider these statistics that the California Department of Justice has provided: 98 percent of all illegal immigrants who are deported for committing felonies in California will eventually return to the state, and of that number, 40 percent will commit crimes again.
REP. XAVIER BECERRA, (D) California: In local communities, we have large immigrant populations or large populations of individuals, as I mentioned, like my parents who might look or sound foreign. There is a concern that some officials within the local law enforcement agencies may be a little bit too zealous.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last Thursday, the House passed an immigration reform bill by a wide margin, 333 to 87. It adds 5,000 agents to the Border Patrol, mandates building 14 miles of new security fence on the border South of San Diego. The bill simplifies deportation proceedings and imposes new penalties on people who try to stay in this country illegally. It also establishes a voluntary federal verification hotline for five states with large immigrant populations, allowing employers to check the resonant status of prospective employees. The bill prohibits states from offering federal welfare benefits to illegal immigrants and allows states to deny them public education. According to supporters of the bill, the new provisions will cut illegal entry into this country by half within the next five years.
REP. DUKE CUNNINGHAM, (R) California: Illegals should, if we can identify who they are, then we ought to give them a ticket out of here, out of this country. We ought to stop 'em at the border and if they're illegal in this country, I don't care if they're from China or from Ireland, with my national heritage, or whatever country, they ought to go back. And the only thing they deserve is a ticket out of here.
KWAME HOLMAN: But what the House bill wouldn't do is change America's policy toward legal immigration. Texas Republican Lamar Smith, sponsor of the bill, had wanted substantial cuts in legal immigration.
REP. LAMAR SMITH, (R) Texas: A fundamental problem in our current immigration system is that more than 80 percent of all legal immigrants are now admitted without reference to their skills or education. 37 percent of recent immigrants lack a high school education compared to just 11 percent of those who are native born. Experts agree that this surplus of unskilled immigrants hurts those Americans who can least afford it, those at the lowest end of the economic ladder.
KWAME HOLMAN: But a majority of members, led by Republican Dick Chrysler of Michigan, voted to knock out of the bill almost all provisions dealing with legal immigration.
REP. DICK CHRYSLER, (R) Michigan: Immigrants who go through all of the legal channels to come into this country should not be lumped into the same category as those who choose to ignore our laws and come into our country illegally. I agree with most of the illegal immigration reforms that are included in the bill, and I would like to vote for an immigration reform bill that cracks down on illegal immigration. But I cannot justify voting for drastic cuts in legal immigration because of the problems of illegal immigrations. These are clearly two distinct issues that must be kept separate.
REP. ANTHONY BEILENSON, (D) California: And the fact is, Mr. Chairman, that legal and illegal immigration are related, because they both affect the size of our country's population. And we are now letting too many people into our country. What Congress does with regard to both types of immigration will determine how many newcomers our communities will have to absorb, how fierce the competition for jobs will be, how much the quality of life in the United States will change in the coming decades.
REP. HOWARD BERMAN, (D) California: Eight out of ten Americans polled say deal with the problem of illegal immigration before you touch legal immigration. Legal immigration has been good for this country. Preserve that existing system. Don't tear it apart. Don't tell family unification apart.
KWAME HOLMAN: Within the next few weeks, the Senate will consider two separate pieces of legislation dealing with both illegal and legal immigration. But at this point, the House has no legal immigration bill in the works, so any reform on that front is unlikely this year.