Hispanic voters watch immigration battle

President and Congress fight over amnesty for pre-1986 arrivals. Will it send wrong signal?

Fifteen years ago this week, Congress cut a historic deal to end the "shadow society" of illegal immigration in America.

It offered amnesty to millions of people who had entered the United States illegally and - for the first time - imposed sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers in an effort to keep more from coming.

Now, the terms of that bargain are being hotly contested again. President Clinton wants to make it easier for Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Haitians, and others who have lived in the US illegally for many years to gain permanent residency. White House officials say Congress will not adjourn without getting this done.

Yet many Republicans worry that extending asylum to a new group of immigrants encourages a disrespect of US borders and will lead to another wave of illegal immigration. It also hurts would-be immigrants who follow the rules, they say.

"Amnesty is unfair to the millions of aliens who are waiting outside the country for their turn to come legally to the United States," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims. "Amnesty actually precipitates even more illegal immigration."

Politics of amnesty

It's a tough issue for Republicans, who need the Hispanic vote to maintain control of Congress and win back the White House. The Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, as the bill is called, is backed by a coalition of Hispanic groups, such as the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. It's also supported by businesses that employ immigrant workers and unions organizing them.

"We now have the largest immigrant membership of any union in the country," says Daniel O'Sullivan of the Service Employees International Union, which recently organized janitors and office cleaners in a Los Angeles strike and is lobbying hard for this bill.

"It took a while, but now immigrant fairness is part of the central debate in Congress," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, chairman of a Hispanic caucus task force on immigration.

The proposed legislation could affect more than 1 million immigrants now in the country illegally or in bureaucratic limbo. It would:

* Make immigrants who came illegally to the US before 1986 eligible for permanent residency. The 1986 amnesty set 1982 as the cutoff, but bureaucratic errors in interpreting this law prevented many from applying at that time. Activists say extending the window of amnesty helps redress this mistake.

* Allow people to adjust their immigration status by remaining in the US and paying a fine, rather than leaving families and returning to their home countries to apply.

* Give Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Hondurans, and other groups the same right to permanent residence that Congress granted Nicaraguans and Cubans in 1997 and 1998.

Supporters insist the aim of this bill is not to expand immigration but to redress issues of fairness. "We have never been able to understand why people that fled violence in Guatemala and El Salvador should have been treated differently than those from Nicaragua and Cuba," says Angela Sanbrano of the Los Angeles-based Central American Resource Center, which was founded to help Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s.

Ericka's saga

Ericka Portela is one of 300,000 Central Americans waiting for a decision on her legal status. She left Guatemala in 1993, after her father disappeared in that country's civil unrest, and she applied for asylum in the US with what remained of her family. When she turned 21, she had to reapply on her own.

"They didn't answer me for a long time," she says of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). "Now, my application is still pending, and I'm not sure if I'm going to receive it or not. My dream is to go to college, but I don't qualify for grants because I'm not a legal resident."

At least 5 million illegal immigrants reside in the US today, according to the INS. Critics say that illegal immigration creates an underclass of unskilled immigrants that can be easily exploited, driving down wages for others, and straining state and local resources.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee released new INS estimates of illegal immigration obtained by subpoena. They show that the number of undocumented immigrants jumped sharply after the 1986 amnesty. "The fact that these new INS figures show that the last amnesty actually attracted more illegal immigration should give serious pause to those now advocating another amnesty," says Steven Camarota of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

The Republicans are pushing an alternative that would allow those prevented from applying for legal status in the 1986 amnesty to do so now. But it would not open the window another five years. It also allows applicants who have been waiting five or more years to reunite with their families and work in the US while cases are processed. It addresses the needs of those "waiting in line, not those who have been breaking the law," says Smith aide John Lampmann.

Administration officials say the GOP plan would affect only a few thousand people. "Our response is: Let's not call it an amnesty at all. Let people benefit from the amnesty that was passed by a bipartisan Congress in 1986," says Maria Eschaveste, White House deputy chief of staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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