A Mixed Review on Amnesty : U.S. Still Has Immigration Problem, but Also a Blueprint

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<i> Rodolfo O. de la Garza is director of the Center for Mexican American Studies and professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. </i>

While it will be some time before all the results of the Immigration and Reform Control Act are known, what we have already learned should inform us how we approach immigration policy in the future.

One major lesson is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its critics know much less about illegal aliens than they would like to admit. Both mistakenly estimated the number of applicants. This should be no surprise since no one knew precisely the size of the eligible pool. The immigration service predictions varied between 2 million and 3.9 million. Latino leaders expected 700,000 or less. As of the Wednesday night deadline, 1,433,066 had registered. And this does not include agricultural workers, who make up a separate category.

This allows for contradictory evaluation of the amnesty program and the immigration service’s administration of it. Measured against the expectations of some of its critics, the immigration service performed very well, making the program a resounding success. Not only were there twice as many applicants registered than critics predicted, but the overwhelming majority were registered by the immigration service.


Community activists and civil-rights leaders had adamantly argued that illegal aliens so distrusted the federal authorities that they would never voluntarily respond directly to a program run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That argument was one of the reasons for the establishment of the elaborate Qualified Designated Entity network. These surrogates--churches, service organizations and so on--had standing in their respective communities and it was expected that the undocumented would come to them. Instead, the great majority went to the immigration service for processing. Among activists and immigration specialists, the consensus is that the immigration service persuaded the undocumented that the amnesty program was not a sting operation and dealt fairly with applicants--especially during the last month.

Measured against its own estimates and the objectives of the program, however, the immigration service’s efforts failed. At best, no more than half of those eligible applied; at worst, the immigration service reached one-third of its target population. This shortfall was due partly to the fact that the program did not really begin to function until three months after its official inauguration. Neither the funds for the Qualified Designated Entity networks nor the regulations for the program’s administration were available when the registration period was launched. The publicity campaign, which has proved so successful in recent months, was delayed even further. Those delays took on greater significance, given the immigration service’s successful opposition to extending the amnesty period.

Differences in the way that regional immigration service offices carried out their responsibilities also limited the effectiveness of the program. In the Southwest, offices were especially diligent. They worked well with Qualified Designated Entity groups and established amnesty offices in barrios across the region. But in Chicago, which has one of the nation’s largest Mexican immigrant populations, there was an amnesty office in an Asian neighborhood but none in the barrios.

In terms of reducing the number of residents who must live beyond society’s protection, the amnesty program may produce more problems than it resolved. While 1.5 million illegal aliens have come out of the shadows, there are approximately 2 million others who have not. More come to America daily. If employer sanctions are enforced, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will force these individuals even further underground.

Even the undocumented who registered may soon face serious problems. Individuals who receive amnesty acquire temporary legal status, valid for 18 months. At the end of that period, they have 12 months to pass English and civics tests. If successful, they become permanent legal residents and are eligible to apply for citizenship in five years.

What is troubling about this is that the regulations governing this process are not yet available. Thus, individuals who applied for amnesty in May of last year should be prepared to take the examination in November. But no one knows what that examination will consist of, so how does one prepare? Also, what happens if a person fails the exam? Will there be immigration service vans at the test centers waiting to haul the unfortunate to the nearest border? Will the immigration service offer sufficient classes and other outreach programs to prepare applicants for the test? Will these be available in time? History and recent performance suggest not.


Clearly, the new immigration law will not contribute much to resolving the nation’s immigration problem. The amnesty program did not end the vulnerability of illegal aliens. Employer sanctions will surely wither in the face of labor shortages predicted by the Department of Labor, and our demand for workers will produce yet another generation of undocumented immigrants.

If there is any consolation to be found in all of this, it may be that the immigration service has proposed legislation that will substantially raise immigration quotas and eliminate the backlog from countries such as Mexico. If an agency that has historically been so rigid in its approach to immigration is now rethinking the problem, perhaps the rest of us--working together and with the immigration service--may develop better alternatives in the future.