REP. LAMAR SMITH sees prospects as "excellent" for a major immigration reform bill to pass Congress this summer - despite the tie-up of the legislation this week in the Senate.
The bill got waylaid when Democrats tried to force votes on amendments unrelated to the bill, including a minimum-wage boost. Annoyed, Senate majority leader Bob Dole pulled the bill.
But Mr. Smith, a Texas Republican, expects the minimum-wage issue to be dealt with in "a few days or a week or two." Then, he says, the immigration bill will be brought up again and pass the Senate. The House already passed a bill March 21 by 333 to 87.
This week Attorney General Janet Reno, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Education Secretary Richard Riley warned in letters to Senate Republican leaders that they would ask President Clinton to veto the bill if it authorizes additional visas for thousands of new temporary farm workers or allows states to deny public education to illegal aliens. But Smith expects Clinton will sign a compromise bill that will emerge from conference committee this summer, even if it includes such provisions.
"The American people see the immigration system as broken," he says. And Clinton needs to win the fall election in California where immigration is a hot issue. Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, wants to deny children of illegal immigrants a public school education. Their education costs the state an estimated $1.7 billion a year.
Smith says he is "ambivalent" about that education provision. "The children are the innocent parties," he says. "The real answer is to deport their parents." His House bill aims at reducing illegal immigration by 50 percent by doubling the number of Border Patrol agents over five years, speeding up deportation of those caught, and testing a temporary, voluntary pilot program in five states that allows employers, who can be fined for hiring illegals, a new means of checking workers' eligibility and thereby discouraging the use of fraudulent immigration documents.
Another goal of the legislation is to cut the use of various government welfare programs by noncitizens, legal or illegal.
New research by Harvard University economist George Borjas and Lynette Hilton of Barents Group in Washington finds that 20.7 percent of immigrant households received government aid of some sort in the early 1990s. This included traditional welfare, Supplemental Security Income (part of Social Security), Medicaid, food stamps, and public-housing subsidies. This is a far higher percentage than was the case two decades ago. And only 14.1 percent of native households get any of these benefits.
The 8.8 percent of the population living in immigrant households accounted for 13.8 percent of the cost of these various welfare programs, or $25.7 billion of a total of $183.8 billion.
"The immigrant welfare problem is more of a problem than it was thought to be," Mr. Borjas says.
Smith calls that 20.7 percent "the single most important figure I have used to indicate there is a crisis."
One reason for increasing use of welfare by recent immigrants is a decline in their average "socioeconomic characteristics." Half of the annual inflow of immigrants - including 720,000 entering legally and 300,000 to 400,000 illegally - have "no skills and little education," Smith says. That means some 500,000 new immigrants each year are competing with Americans of below-average skills and education for a shrinking number of low-skill jobs. Minorities and the 17 million unemployed or underemployed are hit hardest, he adds.
Another reason for the growth in welfare usage is the growing sophistication of information networks within ethnic communities. Russian and Chinese-language newspapers, for instance, have provided detailed information about the application process and eligibility requirements for various welfare programs.
Americans, says Smith, want to be generous to immigrants who work and give to their new community. "But they don't want to subsidize retirement by those who come not to give but to take." His bill aims to cut welfare abuse by toughening the eligibility standard for those who sponsor immigrants.
Courts have found the present law making sponsors financially responsible for those immigrants needing welfare "unconstitutionally vague" and unenforceable. His bill would require sponsors to have incomes twice the poverty level and make their financial responsibility legally binding.