Broadening his Administration's crackdown on illegal immigration, President Clinton vowed Saturday to press for the deportation of up to 100,000 illegal immigrants caught in a huge backlog of cases and to step up enforcement of immigration laws at the border and in the courts.
"Our nation was built by immigrants," Clinton said in his weekly radio address to the nation. "But we won't tolerate immigration by people whose first act is to break the law as they enter our country."
Clinton said he has ordered the Justice Department to move immediately to eliminate the backlog of deportation cases, even if it means asking Congress for more money to do the job.
He particularly focused on illegal immigrants who are caught up in the criminal justice system. "Every day, illegal aliens show up in court who are charged. Some are guilty and surely some are innocent. Some go to jail and some don't. But they're all illegal aliens. And whether they're innocent or guilty of the crimes they were charged with in court, they're still here illegally, and they should be sent out of the country."
Clinton's tough talk on immigration echoes a theme he visited in his State of the Union message and underscores an issue likely to loom large in the 1996 presidential campaign. Saturday's broadcast was designed to spotlight the Administration's record at a time when Republicans in Congress are preparing to draft immigration-control legislation.
Last week, the Clinton Administration sent to Congress an immigration-control bill to expand the Border Patrol, speed the deportation of illegal immigrants, crack down on those who smuggle them into the country and take other steps that have generally received bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
"The proposal helps achieve our three most important goals: to control our nation's borders, to remove illegal aliens and to punish those who profit most from illegal immigration," U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said. The Administration's bill is sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has introduced similar legislation, is planning to hold hearings on immigration this week, and a subcommittee he chairs may begin drafting legislation to control illegal immigration as early as this month.
In addition to measures aimed at illegal immigrants, controls on legal immigration could be considered later this year, a Simpson aide said. The House has already adopted a controversial proposal, as part of a welfare reform bill, to restrict public assistance benefits for legal immigrants.
Clinton's proposal, as well as his remarks Saturday, focus only on illegal immigration.
In discussing the deportation backlog, Clinton said: "If it takes extra judges, we'll ask Congress for the money to get them. We cannot justify continuing to have this large number of illegal aliens in our country simply because our court system won't process them."
The government has been deporting illegal immigrants at an average rate of about 40,000 a year. To step up the pace, Clinton called for increased vigilance in deporting illegal immigrants who find their way into the criminal justice system.
To that end, Clinton called for increased use of deportation as a condition of plea bargaining with illegal immigrants. The U.S. attorney's office in San Diego already uses that approach, which is expected to result in the deportation of 800 to 1,000 people from Southern California this year.
Clinton has asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service to devise a plan, in cooperation with state authorities, for identifying illegal immigrants who defy orders to leave the country. That effort will target "hundreds of thousands of people who have been ordered to leave the country who then disappear back into the population," Clinton said.
Clinton's immigration-control bill calls for increasing the Border Patrol by 700 to almost 5,700 next year. Clinton said his Administration already has increased the Border Patrol by 51% over two years and by 60% on the Southwest border. In El Paso, Tex., he said, border guards are stationed so close together they can see each other.
"We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws," Clinton said. "And it is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years."
Clinton's address comes as California Gov. Pete Wilson remains entangled in an illegal immigrant controversy. Wilson, who is expected to officially declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination next month, has acknowledged that he and his ex-wife hired a Mexican housekeeper in the late 1970s who may have been working in the United States illegally.
Wilson used immigration as a powerful weapon in his campaign for reelection as governor last year and has said he intends to make the issue a central theme of his presidential bid.