Immigration Panic Hurts Nation

LAST week the Senate Judiciary Committee split immigration reform into two bills. One would address the problem of illegal immigration. The second aims to reduce legal immigration. In our opinion, portions of both bills would hurt law-abiding American citizens and businesses.

This nation of immigrants has every right to see to it that those who come to its shores have the drive and skills to become productive members of society. But we should not shut our doors to hard-working people who play by the rules as they seek to build a better life.

The bill addressing legal immigration would keep US citizens from reuniting their families, stifle economic growth through new taxes and regulations, and threaten privacy and the ability to change jobs.

American citizens in effect would no longer be able to bring their parents to this country, because the bill establishes requirements only the wealthiest could meet. United States citizens also would no longer be able to bring in their brothers and sisters or adult sons and daughters. In sum, 2.5 million relatives of legal, eligible-to-vote citizens would be denied entry to this country. This, unconscionably, while 850,000 relatives of formerly illegal immigrants, granted amnesty in 1986, would be allowed in.

The bill would also hurt American economic growth and competitiveness. It imposes a new tax on business equaling $10,000 or 10 percent of the salary of each immigrant employee. The bill would also impose a European-style rule on employers who hire immigrants that would prohibit them from laying off other workers. And a new border tax would cut into billions of dollars of trade and tourism initiated across our borders with Canada and Mexico.

The US always has gotten limited but significant portions of its talent from overseas. George Gilder reports that one-third of US Nobel Prize winners were born overseas. Foreign-born talents aren't a large percentage of the work force, but they play crucial roles, particularly in high-tech firms, which recruit fully in the US but still need to look overseas to find people with particular skills. By making it more difficult and expensive to hire immigrants, the bill would force many companies to move operations overseas, costing many American jobs. Sen. Alan Simpson offered to strike these measures from the bill, but he also noted they may be added back.

The illegal-immigration bill would require employers, including small businesses, to ask the federal government's permission before hiring anyone - citizen or not. An employer would have to contact a centralized bureau and wait for verification before hiring. A similar INS pilot project found owners had to pay for verification equipment, lost time, and increased administrative overhead - costing billions.

This provision could be extended nationwide, spelling catastrophe for American workers. A recent INS pilot program had error rates of 28 percent. Even after the system reaches full efficiency, the Social Security Administration estimates it will be mistaken 5 percent of the time, leaving more than 3 million Americans in employment limbo.

Anti-immigrant panic is unjustified. Illegal immigration is a manageable problem calling for prudent law-enforcement measures. Legal immigration is a controlled and limited process. The US allows in only refugees, business-sponsored immigrants, and those with close family already here. Legal-immigrant admissions actually declined about 9 percent in 1994 and '95.

Punish the lawbreakers, but don't extinguish Lady Liberty's lamp for honest immigrants who are willing to work hard and wait to become Americans.

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