Immigration: a new start

The Reagan administration's new immigration plan provides a useful starting point for addressing a national problem that has reached crisis proportions: the illegal influx of millions of poor immigrants and the attendant potential for job competition, social conflict, and a continuing erosion of law. Obviously on an issue as significant and controversial as immigration many voices -- both in and out of government -- will have to contribute to a just and workable solution.

Here are some aspects of the Reagan plan that warrant particular attention:

At the heart of the proposal is a sensible recognition that, without resorting to brutal police methods, there is no way to deport those millions of illegals already in the United States. These "undocumented workers" (anywhere from 3 million to 6 million) would in effect be granted a form of amnesty. Any alien who arrived in the US before Jan. 1, 1980, could seek a new classification called "renewable-term temporary resident." With this classification an illegal alien could live in the US for three years, and the permit would be renewable indefinitely. After 10 years the alien could seek a permanent resident alien classification.

Is such an approach fair? Congress will want to weigh that question carefully in the light of complaints from Hispanic-Americans, as well as concerns such as those expressed by the leading expert on migration in Mexico, who said that the administration plan would merely institutionalize the already inferior status of illegal aliens now in the US. The head of the largest Hispanic group in the US terms it "tantamount" to "establishing serfdom." It is not hard to see why.The renewable-term temporary residents would not be able to bring spouses or children with them to the US nor be eligible for most federal benefits, although they would be required to pay taxes. They would also have to demonstrate English-language competence -- something which is not required of a permanent resident alien.

The administration, for its part, argues that such stringent restrictions were decided upon because of the illegal past of the aliens -- the fact that they are living in the US in violation of the existing laws. "We have made more hurdles for them than we would for someone who waited in line in Guatemala or Mexico City for legal entry," is how one administration official describes the reasons for the lengthy 10-year plan. The administration is right, of course, but at the same time one cannot but wonder if there is not a fundamental violation of compassion in such a scheme. If American businesses and firms are to use the services of alien workers, then it would hardly seem just to deny them at least the dignity of residing with their families for such a long period of time.

There is one hidden issue that lawmakers and the administration must more openly grapple with. That is the extent to which any eventual amnestry of millions of aliens, even after a decade or so, could eventually bring millions of additional persons (relatives of the aliens) to the US. Some experts believe that any form of amnestry could be a population "time bomb."

The Reagan plan also calls for allowing some 50,000 Mexican nationals into the US annually as "guest workers." By limiting the pilot plan to two years the administration seeks to defuse much of the emotionalism surrounding the issue. However, the annual numbers proposed are in fact not all that much more than the thousands of workers now entering the US annually on a temporary work basis. Since congressional opposition remains strong to the original "bracero program" of the 1940s and 1950s, the administration might consider expanding the current temporary work program rather than opting for an entirely new guest-worker plan.

In any case, it is dubious that this modest increase in regulated movement of workers will satisfy the needs of domestic US employers or, given the population pressures in Mexico, halt the flow of illegal migrants.

One potentially positive aspect of the administration plan is the effort to control illegal immigration by sanctions against employers who knowingly hire aliens. No one relishes the cost (or the very idea) either of an identification method of some sort or of establishing the bureaucracy that would be necessary to run a check system on all jobs, even if done by telephone. But it is relevant to the discussion to point out that in a dozen or so states, including California, which do have employer sanctions, the laws have not proved effective. Nor has there been much effort to enforce the federal statute making it illegal for farm labor contractors to hire illegal aliens.

Either, it would seem, employers must be given a better means of determining which workers are in the US unlawfully (short of the idea of a national "identity" card, which would raise constitutional objections and was properly rejected by the administration), or authorities have to be willing to enforce the law.

It is to be hoped Congress will work with the administration in a bipartisan spirit to enact a fair and effective immigration program. "We have lost control of our borders," is how Attorney General William French Smith rightly describes the present situation. Given the overall vigor of the Reagan administration, control may yet be forthcoming.

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