Premature amnesty makes travesty of immigration bill

IN show business, and in granting a large-scale amnesty to illegal immigrants, the same adage applies: Timing is everything. To prevent a fiasco that proves the above adage true, Congress should adopt a ``triggered amnesty'' amendment to immigration legislation now pending. With such an amendment, illegal aliens would gain amnesty when illegal immigration was substantially curtailed. Lacking this type of amendment, the Rodino-Mazzoli House immigration bill would initiate an early and massive amnesty well before illegal immigration could possibly be brought under actual control. And in the Senate-approved Simpson bill, amnesty could be delayed no longer than three years -- even if illegal immigration was still out of control.

In their present form, both bills promise a bitter lesson in terrible timing. Granting a large-scale amnesty before immigration is actually under control is as sensible an idea as offering amnesty to draft evaders while a war still rages.

Of course the amnesty now proposed purports only to cover persons who arrived before a specified date (Senate, pre-1980; House version, pre-1982). And of course the amnesty would be proclaimed as a one-time-only event. But unless actual control over immigration is achieved before amnesty, who could possibly believe such a proclamation? Unless control over immigration first becomes an accomplished fact, amnesty would be an irresistible magnet to attract still more people to enter or stay illegally. Enticed by the profiteer's offers of back-dated leases and other false papers, many would come in order to meet the deadline for claiming the enacted amnesty, albeit fraudulently. After the deadline, millions more would come and stay, convinced that a nation as befuddled as this one will sooner or later have to enact a massive amnesty for them as well. They would be right.

Apparently, many in Congress believe the proposed sanctions to deter employers from hiring illegals, plus a possibly better-funded Immigration and Naturalization Service, are so certain to succeed that amnesty can be granted blindly -- without first seeing that adequate control over immigration is anything but a hope. Unfortunately, there is simply no basis for such optimism.

In the first place, any system of employer sanctions that Congress enacts will be fraught with uncertainty. The sanctions may prove a semi-success. Or they may prove a dismal failure for any number of reasons. As but one example, unreliable verification: With millions of counterfeit IDs already in use -- easy buys in any border town or city -- a fraudproof means for employers to verify workers' legal status is essential, else the hiring of illegals will continue en masse. Yet, in the Senate bill a secure verification system would require later action by Congress -- which could easily mean never, or nearly so. Although the House bill more wisely attempts to mandate such a system, reliability is unproved. Until a plausible verification system exists nationwide and proves reliable, and until their other components are proved in practice, employer sanctions offer no assurance of anything.

Even if Congress passes a workable sanctions bill, employer sanctions alone have never been thought to be sufficient to stop illegal immigration. A second essential is greatly enhanced border control. But the current bill authorizes increased funds only for later appropriation -- funds that, given current and expected budgetary constraints, may not materialize, and may prove insufficient even if they do. A third essential is an adequate system (financed by visa fees) for ensuring the timely exit of millions of non-immigrant visa holders each year, of whom more than a million have been unaccounted for in a single year. The current bill wholly ignores this need.

Realistically, there is no bill Congress could pass that offers prior assurance of success in controlling immigration. Accordingly, the sole amnesty Congress can responsibly enact is one that can only be activated by a finding that illegal immigration has been reduced to an insubstantial level.

Under this approach, until actual control triggered the amnesty, those who arrived before, say, 1980 could receive provisional but nonexpirable residency and (for nondependents) work permits. Government benefits and visas to admit absent family members could be phased in after the actual amnesty had begun.

It is totally unfair to say that a triggered amnesty would keep longtime illegal residents in limbo. It is the perverse failure to pass adequate control legislation that postpones a workable and fair legalization program. Those who are calling for a pre-control amnesty have the political clout to help pass all the measures that may prove needed to control immigration, thereby soon enabling a sensible amnesty.

Unless amnesty is made contingent upon control, those who don't really want immigration control will have little or no incentive to help pass the needed bills over the next very few years. Increased immigration chaos, and another massive amnesty, are the probable outcomes. And, once again, unemployed and poor Americans will be the prime victims. A Congress that would risk causing these outcomes deserves no confidence.

Wllliam G. Hollingsworth is a professor of law at the University of Tulsa (Okla).

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