Amnesty countdown: hard to tell if program is working

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that there are approximately 6.5 million undocumented (illegal) workers in the United States. Most come from Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, and the Philippines; the number of Mexicans is about five times greater than the next largest group. According to a study published Feb. 9 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 972,000 illegal immigrants (not counting agricultural workers, who are subject to different legalization) have applied for amnesty thus far, out of 1.8 million to 2.6 million who are thought to be eligible.

Although the INS uses the 6.5 million undocumented workers as its general count, it says there is no foolproof method of counting and says the number could range from 3 million to 12 million.

INS spokesmen say they believe their public education campaign, now in high gear, will result in almost all those eligible coming forward by the May 4 deadline.

The Carnegie study, however, estimates that no more than 1.4 million, or 70 percent of those eligible, will apply.

The INS says the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was designed to discourage illegal immigrants coming to the US in search of jobs.

How well has it worked so far? In fiscal 1987, 1.1 million illegals were apprehended along southern US borders, down from 1.6 million in fiscal 1986. The INS sees this decline as proof of the law's effectiveness. ``The idea behind the law was that those individuals who did not qualify for amnesty would be denied the opportunity to work and would voluntarily depart,'' says Duke Austin, an information officer at INS headquarters in Washington. ``We will continue to try to remove illegals from the work force who are not eligible.''

But by INS calculations this could mean removing as many as 4 million people who are already in the country.

``It's not realistic to imagine that the INS is going to deport 4 million people,'' Mr. Wheeler says.

And while INS spokesmen expect civil and criminal sanctions to deter employers from hiring illegals in the future, others are not convinced.

``A lot of industries in the US are dependent on illegal labor for their existence,'' Wheeler says. ``In certain sectors of the economy illegals are still going to be able to find jobs. These are industries where workers have traditionally been undocumented and low paid - such as the garment industry, landscaping, the motel industry, fast foods. Some employers will obey the law and others won't.''

The array of documents required by the INS to prove residence in the US since before 1982 includes driver's licenses, income tax forms, rent payment receipts, canceled checks, telephone bills, and other personal documents. These proofs of residency are often hard to come by for people who, up to now, have made every effort to leave no trace of their presence here.

Under the law, employers are not obliged to verify the authenticity of any residency documents presented by a worker. An employer is subject to sanctions only if he knowingly has hired an illegal alien after Nov. 6, 1986.

``I think the sanctions still allow employers to rely on documents that may very well be fraudulent,'' Wheeler says. ``Such documents are readily accessible on the market.''

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