In what some compare to a national version of California's Proposition 187, a House task force today will release some of the most drastic recommendations yet to curtail illegal immigration, including requiring hospitals to notify authorities of all undocumented emergency room patients and allowing states to cut off public education to undocumented students.
The report to be delivered to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) calls for ending all public benefits to illegal immigrants, except emergency health care. But hospitals, in order to receive federal reimbursement for treating illegal immigrants, would be required to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service of undocumented patients before they are discharged.
The report calls for treating illegal immigrants who use fraudulent documents just like counterfeiters trying to pass fake $100 bills, with criminal penalties of up to 15 years. Those caught trying to cross the border illegally would be fined $50 to $250 on the first attempt and have their assets seized on the second try. A third attempt to illegally enter the United States would bring prosecution, now a rarity.
"I don't think anybody should construe what we're doing as not being compassionate," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), an immigration hard-liner who chaired the 54-member bipartisan task force. "We have a limit as to how generous we as a country can be."
Gingrich set up the task force earlier this year to compile strategies to end illegal immigration and drastically reduce the undocumented population already in this country, estimated at more than 5 million people. Gingrich will pass the report on to the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
The 150-page report, with heavy input from Southern California lawmakers, goes further than any previous immigration initiatives on Capitol Hill and immediately drew criticism from immigration-rights advocates as extreme.
Some critics questioned whether many of the proposals have the backing to be approved, but they expressed concern nonetheless at the drastic nature of the recommendations and what they suggest about the national mood on illegal immigration.
"This eclipses Prop. 187 in its severity and mean-spiritedness," said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. "These are probably the most extreme measures one could take. It's the equivalent of killing a mosquito with a neutron bomb."
Some of the recommendations raised concerns among some task force members, who attached dissenting opinions.
"I think there is a lot in the report we can agree on, but some of the recommendations are deeply troubling," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), one of 23 Californians on the task force. "I think when people mull them over, they will see that kicking tens of thousands of kids out of school and discouraging people from seeking emergency health care is counterproductive to what we want to do."
The report's more than 100 recommendations range from tighter border enforcement to streamlined deportation proceedings to stricter penalties for illegal immigrants and those who hire them. Gallegly discounted comparisons with Proposition 187, which covered some of the same turf as the task force report. It has bogged down in the courts since its approval by California voters last fall.
Proposition 187 calls for the denial of public education, non-emergency health care and public social services to illegal immigrants. It requires health care facilities, educators, social workers and law enforcement officers to report undocumented immigrants to the INS and requires schools to check the immigration status of pupils and their parents.
But while Gallegly shied away from comparing the two plans, others made the connection.
"This is even better than Prop. 187," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a task force member. "This is the type of package that screams out: 'We're serious about this problem.' This again confirms that when California starts the ball rolling, it rolls east until it reaches the Capitol and then it lands with a big thud."
Drawn up in three months, the report is based on a survey of existing immigration laws and reform ideas offered by dozens of lawmakers after visits to the California-Mexico border and airports in New York City and Miami.
Some of the recommendations would require diplomatic arrangements, such as a proposal to deport criminals to the interior of their country, instead of a border town, in order to make immediate re-entry more difficult.
"Rather than taking some of them down to Tijuana or Mexicali, we'd take them to Mexico City or Guadalajara so it would take more to return than a walk across the border the next day," Gallegly said.
To handle increased arrests, the report suggests increasing INS detention space from about 3,500 beds to at least 9,000 and even using closed military bases to handle those arrested. The issuance of visas would be tightened, with special attention given to those countries with the highest rates of citizens who overstay their visas, such as Yemen, Bangladesh, Syria, Haiti and Iraq.
The report calls for a beefed-up Border Patrol but argues that as many as half the new agents should be assigned away from the border, to handle inspections of job sites and investigations of fraudulent-document rings. The INS would be merged with the Customs Service to better coordinate their operations.
The report recommends two massive pilot projects to help employers verify the immigration status of applicants: a tamper-proof Social Security card and a computerized registry using INS and Social Security data that employers could access through a toll-free number. Each pilot project would be tried in two states to assess the best approach to stop the proliferation of false documents.
The task force incorporated many suggestions from other recent immigration proposals.
The report suggests passing legislation to give states the option of denying public education for primary, secondary and post-secondary education to illegal immigrants. A 1982 Supreme Court decision ruled that illegal immigrants are entitled to public education under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Gallegly contends that the decision could be overruled by congressional action, although others argue that a constitutional amendment would be required.