LOS ANGELES — While lawmakers in Washington scrabbled over the most radical change to US immigration law in a decade, the nation's top immigrant-rich state, California, is divided on how effective the reforms will be.
As Republicans and Democrats made final compromises on the immigration bill during the waning hours of the 104th Congress, the contentiousness that has surrounded this issue throughout the lawmaking session abated.
Republicans call the bill a watered-down version of the original, but they say it nonetheless represents a step in the right direction. To Democrats, the compromise salvages provisions that respect the difference in status between legal and illegal immigrants. Among its reforms, the new law doubles the border-patrol force over five years to 10,000 agents, adds fencing in the most-trafficked areas, and creates tougher penalties for smugglers. The GOP dropped a controversial amendment to deny schooling to children of illegals, to ensure the bill's passage.
But even as politicians in Washington hail the bill as a victory, critics abound in California, where half of the US's 350,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants settle each year. Some here say the new law is a punitive measure that violates immigrants' rights. Others say it's not tough enough. But both sides agree on one thing: The reform bill fails to address the roots of the illegal immigration problem, the attraction to American jobs.
"Cheap Latino labor runs the southern California economy in the form of housekeepers, landscapers, restaurant and hotel workers," says Bernardo Ocampo, a gardener from Mexico who is undocumented. Demonstrating at a weekend rally to protest the bill at the Logan Elementary School here, he said: "Now you Americans are going to put up a triple wall and double the officers to keep us out. You are talking out of both sides of your mouth."
"The bill does not reflect the primary reality of US immigration - that jobs are the primary magnet to illegals, not the lure of public benefits," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that examines the impact of immigration on the US. He lauds the bill's inclusion of a pilot program to verify the immigration status of job applicants, but feels more should be done in the area of creating sanctions against employers who hire illegals.
Ira Mehlman, Los Angeles director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says Congress also has refused to acknowledge that legal immigration continues to be a major engine to illegal immigration, that the way to lower the latter is to reform the former.
"Putting up additional barriers at the border is fine," Mr. Mehlman says. But, noting that half of all illegal immigrants are people who entered with legitimate visas and then overstayed, he adds: "All the border security in the world won't stop those who fly into airports with valid visas."
Democrats in Washington fought hard on behalf of legal immigrants, successfully removing a measure that would have deported those who relied on any type of public assistance for more than 12 months during a seven-year period. A provision to deny legal immigrants treatment for AIDS was also dropped.
"The very meanest provisions are now gone," said Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California.
But Maria Rodriguez, who won asylum five years ago during civil strife in her native Peru, has other concerns. "The new barriers to asylum in this bill strike me as the equivalent of America's huddled masses pulling up the ladder behind them," she says. "I always felt that this country stood for equality of opportunity.... No longer."
Many asylum measures remained intact, including provisions that undocumented individuals have no right to deportation hearings, and that INS agents, not judges, will have the right to make summary judgments at border crossings.
"This is a very sad day for US immigration because INS agents have no such training in this area.... It is not due process," says Luke Williams of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Many refugees view false documents as the only way to escape oppression, he says. "Now they are going to be denied safe haven automatically on the false presumption that their use of false documents means there is some intent to break US law."
Negotiators did make a key, last-minute concession to legal immigrants like Ms. Rodriguez. Heeding President Clinton's objection, they softened a proposal that would have raised the annual income requirement for citizens seeking to sponsor immigrant relatives. Currently, a family of four must earn $15,600 a year before the US will allow it to sponsor - and presumably support - an immigrant relative. The proposal would have raised the income level 200 percent. In a compromise, negotiators raised it 25 percent.