The Immigration Issue

Bob Dole's California strategy has pushed immigration more prominently into the campaign debate. That's positive. This is an issue that begs thoughtful attention, and not only in the country's premier "gateway" state.

The quality of campaign give-and-take on the subject, however, has been poor. President Clinton can point to increased apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the California border. Senator Dole stresses how many are still getting through and the burden they put on state government.

Neither candidate gets to the root problems of shoring up a rickety immigration system. The most obvious flaw in that system concerns the millions who flout US law to get into the country. Congress took yet another stab at this problem last month, passing a law that, among other things, expedites deportation. It also launches three small pilot programs to test electronic workplace verification.

But this law, like its predecessors, makes no serious attempt to shut off the engine of illegal immigration - easy access to jobs in the United States. A more comprehensive system of employee identification is needed to separate legal residents from illegals. Many experts favor a more fraud-proof Social Security card - as distinct from a new national I.D. card, which raises an outcry from civil libertarians. A stronger verification system should be teamed with sure penalties for employers who fail to use it.

Such measures were pruned from the recently enacted law as it went through Congress, at the behest of businesses worried about added red tape in hiring or about a decreased flow of low-wage labor.

Also opposed to tougher measures are ethnic activists who see moves to stop illegal entry as part of a wider prejudice against foreigners in general and Hispanics in particular. Their concerns have some validity - anti-immigrant emotions too often blend with racial antipathies. But they don't override the need for effective laws.

At some not too distant point, Congress will again have to take up illegal immigration and go further than the punitive measures - such as denying public education to the children of illegals - now in vogue.

The other side of the immigration coin is legal migration to the US. Changes are needed there, too, as the federal Commission on Immigration Reform recognized in its 1994 report. The commission recommended lowering the ceiling on immigration (now around 1 million a year), and narrowing the family preference system used to grant visas.

Currently, it's considered politic to treat legal immigration and illegal entry as unrelated subjects. In fact, they're interlocked. Forty percent of today's illegals were originally legals who overstayed their visas. About a quarter of legal immigrants were onetime illegals - often people with a job who got an employer to sponsor them for legal status.

Ultimately, what's at stake is nothing less than America's concept of citizenship. With naturalizations taking place at a pace of 1 million a year, are new citizens being given the grounding in democratic principles - to say nothing of basic English - needed to contribute to civic life? Are required background checks getting done?

There's a lot more to the immigration issue than tightening up 14 miles of border near San Diego. Would that the candidates showed more appreciation of this.

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