Immigration Issue Fueled By Highest Rate in Years

Legislators, anxious over the weak economic recovery and the scarcity of jobs, have begun to respond to the anti-immigrant sentiment

FROM the barrios of South Central Los Angeles to the halls of Congress, America is wrestling with the question of immigration as much as perhaps no other time since World War II.

A fresh debate - bolstered by headlines of Chinese smuggled into New York and California, HIV-positive Haitians released from detention, and Arabs arrested in the World Trade Center bombing - is being fueled by numbers. Foreign entrants to the United States last year reached 1.1 million, the highest number since 1907. Nearly 10 million have arrived over the past decade.

"The numbers are going through the roof, and there is no end in sight," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group. "There is no question that a growing number of citizens and legislators feel like we have hit critical mass."

Last week, a Gallup poll showed that 49 percent of 1,002 adults reached by phone July 9-11 said they think that immigration should slow until the economy improves. Twenty-seven percent said it should stop; 69 percent said the government can do more to stop illegal immigration; and 90 percent favored stricter border patrols.

"Much of the sentiment is anti-immigrant, and legislators are responding," says Jeff Passel, director of an immigration-policy research program at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, the House immigration-subcommittee chairman, asked Attorney General Janet Reno to explore a constitutional amendment revoking the right to citizenship for a US-born person whose parents are here illegally.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California introduced on June 30 a plan to double the US Border Patrol's budget and stiffen penalties for smuggling illegals.

And Doris Meissner has been nominated as a get-tough commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, amidst White House moves to tighten the political-asylum process.

During a recent speech at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Ms. Reno said: "In this decade, [immigration] will be the single most difficult problem we face together."

The numbers fueling such concern are bolstered by reforms in 1986 that granted amnesty to 3 million illegals. A 1990 law upped annual ceilings for immigrants from 520,000 to 700,000, not counting refugees, asylum-seekers, visiting relatives of immigrants, and other categories of people that bump the figure 200,000 to 300,000 more. Illegals add another 150,000 to 250,000 on average per year.

"More so than any time in 50 years, an unprecedented percentage [of foreign residents] are new arrivals who have problems with language," Mr. Passel adds. "That exaggerates their presence and visibility."

Because the recession has lingered far longer than most predictions - including deeper recession in the primary immigrant- entry state of California - the current debate is fueled by widespread anxiety over the economy, jobs, and shrinking government revenues for immigrant needs.

"When US citizens watch immigrants crowd public education, health care, and welfare rolls, and compete for public services and jobs, it really gets them talking about their government's priorities," says Rosemary Jencks, senior analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Ms. Jencks says she doesn't call the situation anti-immigrant "so much as a legitimate questioning of the costs and benefits of immigration to the US."

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has long trumpeted the educational, medical, and correctional costs of illegal immigration to his economically battered state. For one recent year, it was $1.7 billion. This month, he asked Reno to tour the US-Mexico border to see the cost on the state's correctional system.

Concerned about unfair backlashes against immigrants, several groups are stepping forward to underline the benefits immigrants bring: entrepreneurial capital, a low-wage work force, and ethnic/cultural diversity.

"There is a fundamental streak of nativism and racism which emerges in tough economic times like these," says Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrant Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Pointing to Gallup poll figures showing that Irish and Polish immigrants are welcomed, while Haitians, Iranians, and Cubans are thought to create problems, he says: "It comes out in overt hostility towards certain immigrants some people decide are different from their view of mainstream America."

But the evidence is growing that even among such groups as Mexican-Americans, which comprise 40 percent of new immigrants, enough is enough.

"We are hearing a thousand times over that Hispanics want a stop to it [immigration], as much or more than others," says Vernon Briggs, a labor-economics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Noting that most immigrants traditionally flow to low-skilled, service occupations like manufacturing, Mr. Briggs says current immigration policy is out of step with current economic realities because the US economy is becoming more service-based. Waves of immigration at the turn of the century and in the 1940s were absorbed into assembly lines, but today they have nowhere to go, he says.

"We are a service-oriented economy now, which requires skills in how to read, write, and communicate with people," Briggs says. "Too much immigration adversely affects other, recent immigrants and minorities because it ignites competition between poorer citizens who are struggling for what's left of blue-collar jobs."

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