As opposing camps in the national immigration debate exchange rhetorical grenades, a federal commission is quietly fashioning a set of recommendations that could provide the basis for bipartisan agreement on some of the issue's most contentious elements.
The report being compiled by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform is expected to have a significant impact on how immigration policy is formed during the next two years, Administration sources said. The report is due in September.
With a diverse cast of eight commissioners and former Texas Rep. Barbara C. Jordan as its forceful chairwoman, the commission is expected to chart politically defensible positions on such difficult issues as border control and public assistance benefits to immigrants--both legal and illegal.
In recent Senate testimony, Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Congress should wait to see the report before making legislative changes on its own.
The group's suggestions will also be required reading at the White House as the Clinton Administration ponders its next immigration initiative.
"I have received every indication from anyone I've spoken with (in the White House) that our report will get serious and careful attention," said Jordan, whose probity and mellifluous speaking voice brought her fame during the Watergate era.
Carol Rasco, Clinton's domestic policy adviser, said that White House staffers have maintained close contact with Jordan, attended many of the commission's hearings and are familiar with how the panel is leaning on particular issues.
"We consider it an important process," Rasco said. "(The report) certainly has the potential to serve as a basis" for White House initiatives on immigration, she said.
The White House has its own interagency group looking at many of the same issues, but Susan Martin, the commission's executive director, said that the two reports would probably be in harmony.
Jordan has said she hopes that the commission's recommendations will help dissipate some of the nastiness that now suffuses the debate.
Some politicians, such as Gov. Pete Wilson, have seized on the anger and resentment many Californians feel toward illegal immigrants. The Republican governor, who is running for reelection, has proposed a constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. He also has sued the federal government to recover the money California spends on health care and the incarceration of illegal immigrants.
"Among commission members, immigration is seen as having more of a positive impact than negative," Jordan said. "I believe quite firmly that the negatives are overblown and without basis in fact. I am fairly certain that the commission is not going to come out with a report that feeds into the emotionalism over the issue."
Jordan said Wilson's aggressive stand is "wrong-headed . . . and (it is) not helpful to use immigration as a scapegoat for a myriad of issues."
But on key points, Jordan and Wilson appear to be in accord. "Illegal immigrants are not entitled to benefits," she said.
Jordan also shares Wilson's view that much of California's immigration woe is caused by inadequate enforcement of federal laws.
"It is the federal government's responsibility to enforce the border . . . and it is wrong in issuing mandates for state and local governments that the federal government refuses to fund," Jordan said. "That creates the animus and spawns the lawsuits."
Jordan knows that in order to be effective, the commission can't dodge taking a stand on controversial issues.
"I do not know that we will reach majority agreement on every issue . . . but I've become much more optimistic that we could forge a consensus around some of the difficult issues. (It would be) foolish to sacrifice our credibility by filing dissents. It would be better to be silent on an issue," said Jordan, who was appointed chairwoman by President Clinton in December.
The commission was established by Congress as part of the 1990 Immigration Act to examine the effects of national immigration policies. During the past year it has held hearings around the country and visited Los Angeles in December.
Two reports will be issued--an interim report in September and a final report in 1997.
The commission's final report will focus on more global themes--effects on economic systems, international trade policy and population issues--Martin said.
The commission members--four Republican and four Democrat appointees--hold differing points of view on many immigration issues. But a source with knowledge of the commission's internal debates said that Jordan has been remarkably successful in forging consensus on a number of tricky issues by cutting through statistical disputes and focusing on the core issue.
Lawrence H. Fuchs, one of the commission's two vice chairmen, was executive director of the last federal panel to tackle immigration. That commission, chaired by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, submitted its report to Congress in 1981 and provided the intellectual underpinning for major immigration legislation in 1986 and 1990.
The Democratic appointees are Fuchs, a professor at Brandeis University; Warren R. Leiden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.; Nelson Merced, a former Massachusetts state legislator, and Bruce Morrison, a former congressman who played a key role in the passage of the 1990 immigration law.
Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer, is the other vice chairman. He is joined by Republican appointees Richard Estrada, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News; Harold Ezell, the former western regional commissioner of the INS under Ronald Reagan, and Robert Charles Hill, a lawyer and Reagan-era Justice Department official.
Jordan is scheduled to testify before Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's immigration subcommittee later this month to brief lawmakers on the commission's progress.