Immigration Half Steps

Congress missed an opportunity for real immigration reform this year by refusing to tighten limits on legal immigration. The idea that the United States can continue to receive immigrants at the current pace is unrealistic and has serious implications for blue-collar wages and the environment. At some point, the nation must consider the question of how many people our share of the continent can support.

For the present, both houses of Congress have voted for politically popular measures against illegal immigrants. Both bills would double the number of border-patrol agents, extend border fencing, and deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. American sponsors of legal immigrants would have a greater obligation to support them, and those immigrants would have less access to benefits. The government could more easily deport immigrants convicted of crimes.

That's all fine, as far as it goes, but both proposals leave a lot of issues unaddressed, such as better training and equipment for immigration officers and federal help to states burdened by large concentrations of refugees.

The two bills differ in several respects, however. The House of Representatives measure would make it more difficult for refugees without travel documents to gain political asylum in the US, and would allow states to deny public education to the children of illegal immigrants. Both provisions should be dropped from the House-Senate conference bill; President Clinton has rightly vowed to veto any proposal containing the education restriction. Any nation may, and should, prevent illegals and their children from entering, rather than punish the children themselves.

The bills also have different provisions for employers to verify that an immigrant is legally in the country and eligible to work. The Senate bill calls for a mandatory pilot program to check on immigrants' status over an automated phone system. The House calls for a voluntary pilot program that would end in October 1999 unless Congress acts to extend it.

An automated phone system could go a long way toward eliminating the rampant document fraud under the current verification procedure. At the same time, there are legitimate civil-liberties concerns; an error rate of even 1% could still mistakenly penalize a lot of people. And, if other federal-agency systems are any guide, it could take weeks to correct mistakes, during which time a qualified individual would be prevented from earning a living. Thus the House's voluntary program is a better idea, at least until the bugs are worked out.

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