NEWS ANALYSIS : Polarization Marks Debate on Immigration Policy : Politics: One side would tighten borders, the other would punish employers. Consensus may be impossible.


From Sacramento to the nation’s capital, the search for solutions to the complex and vexing problems of immigration is rapidly polarizing along jagged ideological lines. In the clash of legislative proposals proliferating at the state and national level, diametrically opposed views are contending for control of the immigration debate.

On one side are restrictionists, most of them political conservatives, who want to combat illegal immigration by bolstering the Border Patrol, creating a new form of national identification card and slashing access to government benefits; many want to reduce the level of legal immigration as well.

On the other are advocates of relatively open immigration, most of them liberals, who want to protect the current level of legal immigration and shift the focus from punishing illegal immigrants by taking sanctions against the employers who hire them.

The intense polarization between these viewpoints guarantees fireworks in both the state and national capital. It also diminishes the prospects that policy-makers will reach consensus on initiatives next year--and even if they do, that those measures will be far-reaching enough to ameliorate the public anxieties over immigration visible in state and national polls.


“It will be very difficult to act,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights group based in Washington. “When you get down to the actual policy-making . . . these are very complex issues that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions.”

On legal immigration the dispute is fundamental. Restrictionists like Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) are pushing for a sharp reversal of the quarter-century trend toward increased legal immigration, maintaining that the country cannot socially or economically absorb the 700,000 legal newcomers a year sanctioned under current law. But President Clinton and other immigration advocates defend high levels of legal immigration as a reflection of fundamental American values.

On illegal immigration, the differences between the two camps derive from fundamentally contradictory diagnoses of the problem. For most restrictionists, the key issue are the “magnets” that they maintain draw illegal immigrants to the United States. Thus they focus on making it more arduous to cross the border and more difficult for illegal immigrants to acquire jobs and government benefits once they arrive.

“We should not have contradictory policies that undermine the effort to try to control the border,” said California Gov. Pete Wilson in an interview. “We are inviting, enticing, providing an incentive to illegal immigration by providing services.”


Even supporters of relatively open immigration increasingly acknowledge the need for greater enforcement along the border. But they reject the contention that government benefits draw illegal migrants to the United States--and thus condemn proposals to deny the limited benefits available to illegal immigrants as not only inhumane but ineffective. Rather, many argue, government should hire more inspectors to enforce existing wage, hour and safety laws--thus compelling employers to clean up working conditions and wage violations that make some jobs now more attractive to illegal immigrants than to citizens.

“You have to address the fact that we have jobs where people will be forced to work for less than the minimum wage in terrible working conditions, and as a result you have a lot of Americans who will resist those conditions,” says freshman Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles). “If we did a much better job of enforcing existing law you would make it more attractive for U.S. citizens and lawful residents to take some of those jobs.”

Those in the restrictionist camp view that prescription as a diversion from the real issues: “Those are not serious efforts to control illegal immigration,” insists Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House GOP task force on immigration. “They are mainly serious efforts to avoid being subject to the wrath of special interest groups.”

To many experts, both sides in this debate are overselling the potential impact of their remedies. The issues raised by immigration--especially illegal immigration--may be fundamentally resistant to long-term “solution.”

Around the world, experts say, developed countries will inexorably face more pressure for migration from rapidly growing populations in the Third World seeking economic opportunity--particularly when wide wage disparities beckon across open borders, as in the United States and Mexico. In such circumstances, many analysts maintain, the most realistic goal is to control the flow of illegal immigration, not eliminate it.

“It’s not an issue that can be solved, unless some very dramatic things change in the world,” Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris M. Meissner said in an interview. “In our lifetimes we’re talking about a new global reality that we have to find ways of living with and managing, and not somehow delude ourselves into thinking that we can make it go away.”

Controlling the Borders

At the top of the agenda for legislators in Washington next year are proposals to tighten control of the national borders.


The Clinton Administration entered the debate last summer with proposals to reform the system for granting asylum to those claiming political persecution. As Congress grapples with the issue next year, the key decision will be how to protect legitimate claims while intensifying efforts to weed out those that are fraudulent.

Larger issues are looming. From the Administration and legislators in both parties, proposals are proliferating to increase staffing for the Border Patrol and to modernize its equipment. This year, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) won Senate approval of legislation to deploy the National Guard in civilian support operations, theoretically freeing up more officers to patrol the borders. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed a new border crossing fee to fund increased Border Patrol operations.

Even some advocates for immigrant rights are moving toward support of increased resources for the Border Patrol--if the buildup is accompanied by more training and the creation of an outside review panel, as Becerra and Boxer have proposed, to review charges of abuses against illegal migrants.

That could generate conflict with the Administration. While Meissner supports establishment of an advisory civilian review panel for the INS, she says “disciplinary procedures and hiring and firing . . . has to be left with the inspectors general and the offices of professional integrity.”

Beyond the U.S.-Mexican border, Meissner said, steps must be taken to prevent the visa abuse that allows foreign business executives, students and visitors to enter the country legally and overstay their visas--a problem that may account for as many as half of the nation’s estimated 300,000 new illegal immigrants each year.

In both parties, there is a widespread sense that the 1986 immigration reform law has failed to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants--largely because it failed to limit the availability of counterfeit documents employees can use to demonstrate legal status.

That consensus is reviving broad interest in the creation of a tamper-proof form of national identification card that would be required for employment. The White House is studying the issue, and calls for the creation of such a card as a centerpiece of all major Republican immigration proposals, including Wilson’s.

But many groups supporting immigrant rights oppose the notion, maintaining that such a card will lead to discrimination against minorities, evolve into a tool that would enable law enforcement officials to keep tabs on all Americans and fail to prove citizenship unless policy-makers also could secure the integrity of the underlying documents, such as birth certificates, that would be used to acquire it.


For all the heat it generates, the debate over a tamper-proof ID card may be rendered obsolete if Congress creates a national benefits card as part of its reform of the health-care system. Such a health benefits card could become the basis for efforts to establish legal residence for employment and other government benefits, many analysts believe.

At the state level, California Democrats also are pushing sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. In the extreme, the sanctions could include seizure of the businesses of repeated violators. GOP lawmakers strongly oppose the proposal.

Limiting Benefits

In the debate over immigration, no issue provokes more emotion than whether to limit access to federal benefits for illegal immigrants and new arrivals who have not yet acquired citizenship.

In a dramatic reflection of current attitudes, House Republicans have proposed to cut off benefits such as food stamps and welfare for all legal residents who are not yet citizens, except for refugees.

Illegal immigrants are currently ineligible for most federal benefits, though states are obligated to provide emergency medical care and education for their children; in addition, children of illegal migrants born on U.S. soil become American citizens and are eligible for all social benefits, including welfare.

Wilson and several legislators in Congress, led by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), are urging a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. But Clinton opposes the idea and the legislation is given little chance. Nor has there been much interest in Wilson’s call for federal legislation to challenge the 1982 Supreme Court ruling that requires states to educate the children of illegal immigrants. Even Reid, a leading Senate advocate of restrictionist positions on immigration says flatly: “You don’t want them uneducated.”

The battle over benefits for immigrants could be more intense at the state level. Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia) is planning to again introduce legislation that would ban all public money that conceivably could be spent on illegal immigrants.

That bill has slim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Assembly. But California conservatives are pushing to qualify two ballot initiatives that would advance the same agenda. One is sponsored by former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum. Directing the other are Harold Ezell, former western states chief of the INS, and Alan Nelson, the former INS commissioner who is now a California representative for FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Both would focus on cutting public funds for illegal immigrants; the Ezell-Nelson measure pushes the debate to the edge by requiring public schools to remove children who are in the country illegally and to inform on parents they suspect are illegal immigrants.

Ezell acknowledges that denying education to illegal immigrants would prompt a lawsuit. But many conservatives, including Wilson, are eager to generate a challenge to the Supreme Court ruling that ordered states to educate the children of illegal immigrants. Wilson, however, says he has not yet taken a position on the proposed initiative.

Against this tide of measures to deny migrants--both legal and illegal--public benefits, immigrant advocates are struggling to find an audience for an agenda built around expanding programs aimed at encouraging assimilation and self-sufficiency.

Michael Fix, director of the immigrant policy program at the Urban Institute, offers this alternative agenda: Increase spending on federal programs that teach English to new arrivals, generally considered the best way to increase their economic viability; reform the huge federal Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged students to increase funding for school districts, like Los Angeles, absorbing large numbers of new students with limited English proficiency; and provide greater federal assistance for states and municipalities bearing the costs for assimilating new immigrants.

Other officials, like Boxer and Meissner, are calling for greater efforts to encourage legal immigrants to acquire citizenship.

“Basically, these people are here,” says Fix. “Do we ignore them (or) do we take the steps now to make sure that they experience the upward mobility that their predecessors experienced?”

California and other states heavily affected by illegal immigration argue that the federal government should reimburse states for the extra cost of absorbing illegal immigrants. Los Angeles County officials also point out that the bulk of taxes paid by undocumented immigrants go to Washington, leaving impacted state and local governments to bear the financial burden of providing services to them.

But because only a handful of states receive the bulk of illegal immigrants, they may find it difficult to persuade congressional representatives to allocate more money.

Control or Develop?

To Wayne Cornelius, an expert on U.S.-Mexican relations at UC San Diego, those seeking to deter illegal immigration by fortifying the border and sweeping the workplaces are focusing on the wrong end of the equation. “There is a pretty strong consensus among immigration specialists,” he says, “that a developmental approach focused on the sending countries is the only thing likely to have a long-term deterrent effect on immigration.”

Thus, Cornelius maintains, the recently approved North American Free Trade Agreement offers the best hope of reducing the flow of illegal migrants from Mexico; after the agreement has been in place for a decade, illegal immigration from Mexico should drop by more than half, Cornelius and a colleague recently projected.

Almost everyone in the immigration debate agrees that any long-term program to control illegal immigration requires invigorating Mexico’s economy. But not everyone is as sanguine as Cornelius.

For one thing, many experts--Cornelius included--expect NAFTA to increase immigration pressures over the near term, as small and medium-size Mexican companies face increased competition from the United States. The ongoing modernization of Mexican agriculture could create another potential stream of migrants. And even if NAFTA does accelerate Mexican economic growth over the longer term, many analysts believe the country is unlikely to produce enough jobs for its burgeoning population.

Over the foreseeable future, then, its unlikely that Mexican economic development alone will substantially alleviate the pressure on officials in Sacramento and Washington to deal with illegal immigration. But the polarized nature of the debate argues against quick consensus on new directions.

In fact, some key legislative aides believe Congress is unlikely to take any major steps--beyond perhaps reforming the asylum laws--to confront illegal immigration before the Congressionally-chartered Commission on Immigration Reform completes its review of federal immigration policy. That report is due next September. And many Congressional observers are equally dubious that legislators will reduce the level of legal immigration--as Reid has proposed--just three years after Congress increased the ceiling by 40%.

“There are some legitimate questions that can be raised” about the 1990 law, Meissner said. “But two or three years is not enough time to judge a piece of legislation like this. You have to have a longer period to get some sense of what is really happening.”

History buttresses those predicting delay. Major shifts in immigration policy usually require many years of debate and disagreement before consensus emerges. The employer sanctions approved as part of the 1986 federal law on illegal immigration, for instance, had been debated since the early 1950s.

But the intensity of public uneasiness over immigration, particularly in California, gusts in the other direction. “We are in the midst of the first grass-roots immigration debate in 100 years,” says Daniel Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to reduce immigration.

In this turbulent environment, few hazard firm predictions on how Congress and the state Legislature will act. The safest bet may be that immigration will remain a flash point regardless of state and national policy so long as many Americans feel uneasy about their own economic futures.

“If I were addressing the problem,” says Richard Rothstein, a Los Angeles-based research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, “I would forget about the immigration problem and start to do something about creating jobs.”

Times staff writers Dan Morain in Sacramento and Richard Simon in Los Angeles contributed to this account.

About This Series

This is the final article in the series, “The Great Divide: Immigration in the 1990s.” With the public debate over immigration growing more heated, The Times has examined the significant issues for California and the nation.

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To order: Send a written request with your name and address and the number of copies you want to: Times on Demand, Immigration Series, P.O. Box 60395, Los Angeles, Calif. 90052. Make checks payable to the Los Angeles Times. Please allow six to eight weeks for delivery.