The law that imposes penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants has not been a burden to business, but it has resulted in "widespread discrimination" against legal American residents, according to a new government study.
The report by the General Accounting Office, released Thursday, brought immediate calls for repeal of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Bills in both the House and Senate were introduced upon the report's release, triggering what is sure to be an intense battle on Capitol Hill.
"This level of discrimination is intolerable, and the Latino community will not stand for it," said Francisco Garcia, immigrants' right director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is based in Los Angeles. He added that his organization and others would launch a massive lobbying and letter-writing campaign to urge Congress to repeal sanctions.
However, others questioned the validity of the research methods and focused on what they considered the report's more positive findings.
Michael Fix, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute, a contractor to the GAO's study, said the report's research included sending out teams of two male U.S. residents--one who looked and sounded Latino and one who appeared to be Anglo--to 360 major employers in Chicago and San Diego last summer.
The Latino applicants were 33% less likely to get a job interview and 52% less likely to be hired than the Anglo applicants, the research found.
Fix said those findings alone do not prove the immigration law created discrimination because there was no way to measure employer discrimination before the law went into effect.
"It doesn't prove (the bill) caused the discrimination, but it is one more piece to the puzzle that showed the proclivity of employers to discriminate under it," he said.
He added that other measures, including a survey of employer reactions to the law, were used to reach the conclusions that discrimination resulted from the law.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who authored the immigration reform bill, took a dim view of the GAO report. "I do not believe Congress will repeal employer sanctions when they fully look at this report," he said, adding it didn't prove that the law produced discrimination.
He pointed out a section in the report that found only 6.6% of companies surveyed acknowledged they "began a practice to not hire job applicants whose foreign appearance or accent led the firm to suspect they might be unauthorized aliens."
"I guess I have learned a new definition of the word 'widespread,' " Simpson said. "Now, I can't give you an exact definition for the word . . . but it's certainly more than 6%."
But opponents of sanctions noted that the report found that 14.7% of employers said they "began to hire only persons born in the United States" after the law went into effect. Thirteen percent of the employers surveyed said that after the law went into effect they "began a practice not to hire persons who have temporary work eligibility documents, for example, temporary resident aliens."
The GAO report is the federal government's first admission "that sanctions are a failed policy," said Garcia, who was joined in a press conference at MALDEF's downtown Los Angeles headquarters by representatives of the ACLU, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
The GAO's figures "show that employers treat workers differently based upon how they speak and how they look," said Anne Kamsvaag, a spokeswoman for the coalition.
Under provisions of the law, Congress is required to consider repealing the employer sanctions if the GAO determined they created discrimination. The GAO proposed three options for Congress: repealing the sanctions, leaving them in place with no new action and keeping the sanctions but establishing a uniform system of worker eligibility verification.
"The report confirms exactly what many of us in Congress feared when employer sanctions were enacted in 1986," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. Kennedy, who filed legislation Thursday to repeal sanctions, will chair a committee hearing on the GAO report this morning.
At a joint news conference in Washington, Latino and Asian-American groups repeatedly stressed the need for repeal.
"The question before Congress is simple," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza. "Does our nation's historic commitment to civil rights apply to Hispanics, Asians and others who face discrimination simply because they look foreign? If so, employer sanctions must be repealed."
Louann Igasaki, a spokeswoman for the Japanese American Citizens League, said: "Employer sanctions are hurting Hispanic Americans, but are hurting Asian Americans and other immigrant groups as well. As a nation of immigrants and one of law and individual rights, this is not an acceptable cost."
Joining the ethnic rights groups at the news conference were several congressmen, many of whom were Latino and Asian, who apologized for having voted for the immigration reform bill and promised to support its repeal next time around.
"The pact on which many of us supported this bill has been breached," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who voted for it in 1986 and submitted a bill Thursday in the House calling for its demise. "It's time to repeal employer sanctions."
Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), who opposed the bill in 1986 and also submitted a new bill Thursday calling for its repeal, said he tried to warn his colleagues that the law would create discrimination. "I regret that our concerns have been confirmed," he said.
To which, Rep. Albert G. Bustamente (D-Tex.), replied: "I regret that I voted for employer sanctions in 1986."
However, Richardson predicted an "uphill" battle.
Simpson pointed out that the GAO suggested that the discriminatory effect of sanctions could be reduced by a system of authorized worker verification. Such a system might create a uniform document, similar to a Social Security card, certifying an individual's right to work.
Currently, 17 different documents may be used to verify eligibility to work in the United States. Employers confused by the documents and worried about trade in fake papers now may be inclined to avoid the risk of making a mistake by hiring only those who do not appear "foreign."
Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Gene McNary said the administration also would favor retention of the sanctions and hinted his support of a worker authorization document. "We need to go forward and try and improve" the law, he said. "Let's don't throw it out."
Richard Reyna, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, argued such a system "is stepping on the slippery slope toward a national ID card. . . . In this computer age with the broad data bases, it would severely impose on our privacy rights."
In addition to GAO researchers, the surveys were conducted by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, and Santa Monica-based RAND Corp.
Times staff writers Jill Stewart in Los Angeles and Shawn Pogatchnik in Washington contributed to this report.
Responding to public outrage over rising levels of illegal immigration, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The idea was to frighten employers--with threats of fines and jail--into hiring only legal residents and to dissuade foreigners from sneaking into the country in search of jobs. The law also provided amnesty to illegal residents who could prove they had been in the country since January, 1982.