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New-Found Flexibility at INS Should Extend to Families

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer. </i>

As the joke says, there’s good news and bad news about the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

The good news is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is implementing the first phase of the complex legislation, a legalization program for illegal immigrants. The program, which began three weeks ago and will run for a year, has gone smoothly so far.

The bad news is that, slowly but surely, Congress seems to be falling back into its cynical habit of ignoring the human issues raised by our immigration policy and focusing on the economics instead.

For all the concern expressed by Latino and Asian civil-rights groups and others watching to see how illegal immigrants are treated under the new law, INS officials have been flexible, and even downright friendly, in applying its so-called amnesty provisions. These confer legal residence status on illegal immigrants who can prove that they entered the country before Jan. 1, 1982.

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To date 26,700 applications for amnesty have been filed, according to INS spokesmen. Of course, the number of immigrants believed eligible for amnesty is estimated to be anywhere from 3 to 4 million. So if there’s a reason the agency long regarded as the government’s most inefficient is getting favorable reviews, it’s that immigrants have not exactly been stampeding to its legalization centers.

But there are rumblings of discontent elsewhere. Some of the community agencies helping INS register applicants for amnesty, especially those associated with the Roman Catholic church, are dealing with many more people than they prepared for. Some have run short of application forms and others find that the federal government’s reimbursement is not nearly enough to cover the cost of the agencies’ paper work, staffing and overhead.

Even more worrisome is the issue of family unification. The toughest problem faced so far by immigration officials is what to do when not all members of a family have the same qualifications for staying in this country. For example, a father and mother who came here before 1982 can stay, but their children cannot if they came here later. So far, INS officials are dealing with these problems on a case-by-case basis. But what will happen to these complicated individual cases if the number of people applying for legalization increases dramatically? Will each family get the attention its deserves?

We must hope so, but the best way to ensure fair treatment for everyone would be for Congress to amend the new law, making it clear that keeping families intact is a priority. The potential for family problems was raised when Congress was debating the new law, but it was put aside because restrictionists, including the bill’s primary author, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), feared that immigrants would use family unification as a “loophole” to bring close relatives into the country. Now a few members of Congress want to amend the law to make it more specific on family unification, but their colleagues don’t want to reopen the matter.

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Contrast that with how quickly the Senate voted to put off implementation of the second major provision of the new law--sanctions that are supposed to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants. The original law called for sanctions starting June 1, but the Senate voted a three-month delay. In order for that delay to be effective, the House must agree. But INS officials have already announced that they will delay sanctions for at least 30 days, until July 1, to give employers more time to understand the new regulations.

That sounds reasonable--until you remember how easy it always seems to be for the government to write loopholes for business, in this case for employers who want a cheap, malleable labor force.

A classic example took place the last time Congress revised our immigration laws, in the early 1950s. When a bill passed making it a felony to “import or harbor” illegal immigrants, Congress specifically excluded employment from that definition. The move was so transparent that the amendment was dubbed “the Texas proviso,” in a backhanded tribute to congressmen from that state who had pushed it on behalf of farmers there.

Many of the same border-area congressmen also were responsible for keeping INS, especially its uniformed Border Patrol, tightly funded for so many years. As any Latino can tell you, the Border Patrol has always had just enough money to keep illegal aliens working scared, but never enough to do its job properly, which would keep growers short of field hands.

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I’m not suggesting that any new Texas provisos are about to be enacted, but it might be a good idea for the public to keep a sharp eye on what Congress does with these proposed delays in employer sanctions. If our shiny new immigration law is changed, it must be done in ways that help everyone involved--workers and their families as well as employers.


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