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THE GREAT DIVIDE : Solving the Problem

Times Staff Writer

Proposals for new directions in immigration law are proliferating at the state and national levels. Based on interviews with The Times, here is a sampling of ideas political leaders and immigration experts are advancing:

VERNON M. BRIGGS, Cornell University labor economist, proposes making the level of legal immigration subject to U.S. economic conditions:

“Right now, our legal immigration system is inflexible: It admits 700,000 legal immigrants a year regardless of economic circumstance. In other countries, like Canada and Australia, the ceiling fluctuates with domestic economic conditions, and as unemployment goes up immigration goes down. I would like to see the level (here) set by the Department of Labor. . . .

“Under our current immigration system, 80% are admitted on the basis of family unification. . . . That ought to be eliminated . . . and shifted to a system where the Labor Department determines what occupations and what regions are in need of workers.”

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PETE WILSON, California governor, favors a tamper-proof ID and bolstering the Border Patrol:

“The law (against hiring illegal immigrants) doesn’t mean much now, because it is virtually unenforceable. What’s needed to make it enforceable is a tamper-proof card, which could also be used as eligibility for (government) benefits.

“The cost of bringing on additional Border Patrol officers runs somewhere between $23,000 and $30,000. That cost is far, far less for the return upon it than what the states are being compelled (to provide) in state tax dollars for services (to illegal immigrants) that are being mandated by the federal government.”

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ALAN NELSON, lobbyist, Federation for American Immigration Reform, favors programs to identify and remove illegal immigrants from the workplace. He also seeks more cooperation from Mexico:

“Congress needs to authorize state employer laws so you have complementary laws at the state level to back up the federal laws. . . . The main thrust of employer sanctions is not to penalize employers, it is to keep illegal aliens from working. What we need is more efforts (to ensure) that when illegal aliens are apprehended and removed from jobs . . . those jobs are filled by citizens or lawful aliens.

“Even with NAFTA, we still have to come back to Mexico and say, ‘Trade and commerce is fine, but we cannot have illegal immigration and we must work together against it.’ My three-point program on Mexico: Charge a border-crossing fee that gives the U.S. and Mexico the money to fund new efforts; have a policy (in Mexico) of taking illegal immigrants back to their interior homes instead of dropping them over the border; and work (jointly) on smugglers. That sends the right signal: that we and Mexico will not tolerate illegal immigration.”

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REP. XAVIER BECERRA (D-Los Angeles), would encourage legal residents to become citizens and would set up a Border Patrol review board:

“If people are really concerned about losing their identity as Americans because of the influx of immigrants, then why not ensure that these immigrants can become a part of America as quickly as possible and make them citizens?

“What you need is to have some aggressive oversight, which hasn’t occurred in the past. The major problem isn’t that the Border Patrol or the INS is a rogue agency; it’s that there are a few rogue officers within the agency. . . . You have to find a way to go after the rogue element, just the way the Los Angeles Police Department had to go after its rogue element.”

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PIERRETTE HONDAGNEU-SOTELO, USC professor of sociology, urges English-language instruction to help new arrivals assimilate and achieve economic self-sufficiency:

“In a lot of these discussions, the assumption is that new immigrants don’t want to assimilate, don’t want to learn English . . . want to be here illegally. All of those are untrue.

“Certainly immigrants want to retain their culture, their tradition, their language, but they are also eager to abide by the law, to learn English, to have their children do well in school. Rather than cutting access to education or health for immigrants, we ought to be thinking about strengthening our schools, our libraries, our parks, all the kinds of resources that can help immigrant families do well in this system. . . . If enacted, these proposals (to deny benefits) . . . really would be institutionalizing and locking in an underclass of people.”

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DORIS M. MEISSNER, INS commissioner, puts a priority in detecting illegal immigrants not only at the border but also inside the country. She also advocates reforming the asylum system:

“The Border Patrol is the cops on the beat; they are the front line. As much as you try to prevent (border) entry, you are going to have other people who are going to come in in other ways, and if you are not able to remove them quickly, the message goes back that once you’re in it’s OK.

“The asylum system right now is as much a source of enforcement vulnerability as anything at the borders. The asylum system is choked so that it is not giving refugees a timely decision for their protection, and it is also inviting unfounded applications.”

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