Taking millions of currently undocumented immigrants and routing them into bureaucratic channels to make their status legal -- as President Bush is proposing -- could be like trying to divert a wild river into a leaky municipal aqueduct.
And former immigration officials in Democratic and Republican administrations say the task could overwhelm the Homeland Security Department, even if Congress allocates enough money to hire and train additional immigration officers, add hundreds of new computers and bring in private contractors to help process requests.
Some experts have also expressed concern that the new program would be susceptible to fraud and ultimately not succeed in fixing the problems in the current system.
“The scale of this is such that it could swamp any real chance of building an effective immigration system,” said University of Virginia law professor David Martin, who served as general counsel with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for three years during the Clinton administration.
“The logistical challenge here is huge, that is part of why this is such a stunning proposal,” Martin added. “I wonder about the decision to add this additional workload to Homeland Security.”
The duties of what was the INS were inherited by Homeland Security, a new department still trying to sort out its broad portfolio, which ranges from disaster relief to passenger screening at airports. The immigration services branch already handles some 7 million applications a year for everything from citizenship to political asylum. It has a backlog of more than 5 million cases despite repeated efficiency campaigns.
Since the final structure of the Bush plan is far from clear, its cost is unknown. Homeland Security’s immigration budget is about $5 billion a year. Fees on employers and migrants could finance much of the new program, but there would still be start-up expenses. It would remain a mammoth undertaking.
Administration officials say it is possible, given adequate resources, to carry out immigration reform while meeting current responsibilities. But the principal elements of Bush’s plan -- legal status for illegal immigrant workers coupled with an open-ended guest-worker program -- would pose unique logistical difficulties.
The plan, proposed Wednesday, needs the approval of Congress.
In the U.S., the legalization of millions, even if only as temporary workers, would require individual background checks and an evaluation of each case to prevent fraud and abuse and criminal organizations or terrorist groups from taking advantage of the program.
“It’s going to be a real mess just because of the volume of it,” said James Ziglar, who served as INS commissioner for Bush in 2001-2002. The immigration agency has “been struggling under a flood of paper, and if you throw in a few million more applications, Congress is going to have to be willing to give them a lot more resources.”
Experience suggests that perhaps half of the estimated 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants in the country would apply for legal status. The last major legalization took place in the mid-1980s and of an estimated 6 million to 7 million undocumented immigrants, about 2.7 million were granted legal status. Now a larger percentage of the undocumented may come forward.
“The dynamic today is so different,” Ziglar said. “Post-Sept. 11, a lot of people who are here illegally have burrowed more and more into the underground. If they see this as a way to come out from the shadows, they may take it. The number may be enhanced over what it was in 1986.”
The second part of Bush’s plan for a massive guest-worker program involves workers abroad. It would need a system of go-betweens to connect foreign workers with jobs. The president has proposed an online employment database, but people in countries where technology lags may not have access. The role of intermediaries -- labor agents or even foreign government officials -- could provide an opening for corruption.
“Migrants had to pay bribes under the bracero program,” said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at UC Davis. “The selection mechanisms [for workers] in developing countries are often a problem.” The bracero program, which brought thousands of Mexican farm workers to the United States during World War II and into the 1960s, was tainted by exploitation.
Bush developed his guest-worker plan with the aim of addressing migration from Mexico, but it would be open to workers from any country. Among the unanswered questions is what would happen if people in a country with an Al Qaeda presence developed an interest.
The president has pledged that tougher enforcement would accompany immigration reform, but his administration has not spelled out how that would be done. Fraud, corruption, and continued smuggling of illegal immigrants could undermine its success.
Administration officials acknowledge that immigration reform is a big job with a significant risk of problems. But they say society should no longer tolerate the current situation, in which millions of residents are relegated to underground lives, and the government has no information on them.
Homeland Security can meet the challenges of immigration reform, White House officials maintain.
“We’re trying to reduce the [immigration] backlog that has existed over the years,” said a senior administration official. “The capacity going forward, in relation to this particular initiative, will be dealt with when the Congress responds to the president’s call. What we’re going to do in the meanwhile is make sure that we bring new technology to the front.”
Still, some experts say they are troubled that Bush seems to have glossed over potential problems. They worry that speedy approvals for guest workers could open the program to fraud, or in the worst case, penetration by terrorist groups.
“This seems totally out of keeping with what we’re doing in other areas of immigration,” said Martin, the former INS counsel. “We’re fingerprinting foreigners at airports and we’ve told most nonimmigrant visitors that they can’t come in without a face-to-face interview. I suppose we could have an officer just stamp work permits, but do we really want to do that? It could invite this being used by bad guys.”
David North, who evaluated the 1980s legalization for the Ford Foundation, said fraud will be a problem unless the rules for the program are tightly written and enforced. The main component of the previous legalization worked fairly well, North said, but a smaller program for agricultural workers was riddled with fraud, because there was no way to check whether applicants had worked in the fields.
“Homeland Security will probably rise to the occasion in terms of outreach to immigrants, but it would probably not rise to the occasion in terms of deterring fraud,” North said. “It takes an enormous amount of time and paper and energy for the bureaucracy to say no instead of yes. I’m very worried that this could be like saying ‘Open Sesame.’ ”
In the U.S., charitable organizations, religious groups and immigrant advocates can assist the government with a legalization program by helping to screen immigrants. The infrastructure for guest-worker programs overseas is less developed.
Mexico sends about 160,000 legal guest workers a year to the United States. Recruiters from American companies pick the workers and refer them to the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, for identity checks and work visas.
The Mexican government is not currently involved, but there is sentiment for local officials to have a say in vetting workers for any future U.S. program. That could provide an opportunity for unscrupulous officials to shake down prospective workers.
Ziglar, the former INS commissioner, said another approach would be to create private industry co-operatives in the United States, whose agents would find and screen workers.
Under Bush’s plan, jobs are not supposed to be offered to foreign workers unless American workers cannot be found. But Martin, the UC Davis economist, said employers could circumvent such requirements by not looking very hard for U.S. workers.
“Will this plan take illegal workers and make them legal? Yes,” Martin said. “Will it simultaneously ensure that U.S. workers get first crack at the jobs? I don’t want to say it can’t be made to work, but I do think it is fair to say it will be difficult.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City contributed to this report.