Policies on Illegal Immigrants at Odds

Times Staff Writers

Illegal immigrants receive in-state tuition for California colleges but don’t qualify for federal loans.

They can buy cars and car insurance but, in most states, can’t get driver’s licenses.

And they regularly find jobs at publicly funded hiring halls but can’t lawfully work.


Immigration policies in the United States are contradictory and often confusing, alternately welcoming illegal immigrants to the country and telling them to go away.

“Do you want me to go back to my country? Or stay? Or what?” said Cristina Cardelas, 24, who is working, paying taxes and attending school in a country where her presence is illegal.

“Public policy is not logical sometimes,” said Harry Pachon, executive director of USC’s Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank. “It’s almost like Prohibition. The law says one thing, but the reality is something else.”

In recent months, the debate over illegal immigration has grown increasingly fierce in Washington and around the country as advocates and opponents have wrangled over day labor centers, driver’s licenses, citizen border patrols and, most recently, voter identification.

“We are deeply divided among ourselves,” said Frank Bean, co-director of UC Irvine’s Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy.

Though nowhere close to agreeing on solutions, the two sides often can agree on at least one thing: U.S. policies frequently are at cross-purposes.

The main reason for the domestic tug-of-war is well known: the tension between the demand for cheap labor versus the public cost of providing health, educational and other services to migrants and their families.

Largely because illegal immigration is clandestine, no one has definitively measured its costs and benefits. Still, with 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country, the issue provokes strong -- and often conflicting -- opinions.

“Immigrants are the backbone of our economy, and employers continue to need their labor,” said Tanya Broder, staff attorney for the pro-immigrant National Immigration Law Forum, “but our immigration laws haven’t kept up with this.”

“You are not just getting the cheap laborer,” countered Rick Oltman, Western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, “you are getting that guy’s wife and child, who is in school.... You create these little illegal immigrant communities that are basically sanctuaries.”

The high emotions and contradictory impulses have made for strange politics. The Bush administration, whipsawed by opposing forces within the Republican Party, has tried to walk a fine line between supporting a guest worker program and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Of late, it has given more emphasis to border security, angering businesses within its own party.

“What we have now is a dishonest immigration policy,” said Mark Krikorian, who runs the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “We make it tough to get across the border but easy to get a job. This is really the central conflict. Everything stems from that.”

Inconsistencies in public policy open the door for illegal immigrants to enter the embrace of the private marketplace.

Illegal immigrants cannot get Social Security cards but can get U.S.-issued tax identification numbers, which they can increasingly use to get home loans. Undocumented immigrants also can get Mexican governmentissued identifications, called matricula consular cards, which they can use to open bank accounts, obtain credit and purchase insurance in the U.S.

Some companies are more than willing to accommodate them.

“We have the business economy identifying the undocumented in a way that the government refuses to do,” said Rob Paral, a research fellow at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Law Foundation.

The companies, for their part, are unapologetic.

“Whether they are supposed to be here or not, the reality is that they are here,” said Robert Alaniz, a spokesman for WellPoint, parent company of Blue Cross of California, which accepts the matricula consular as identification in insurance purchases. “They are a viable part of our economy.”

One of the sorest points in the debate is illegal immigrants’ use of government services, especially healthcare. The businesses that hire illegal immigrants tend not to offer health insurance, and the immigrants don’t qualify for most government programs, so many go to emergency rooms for treatment when the need arises. Hospitals, by federal law, are required to provide emergency care, regardless of patients’ immigration status.

In Los Angeles County, officials estimated in 2003 that the annual bill at public hospitals for uninsured illegal immigrants reached $340 million.

The sum of these contradictions is a lot of anger and confusion.

“I am allowed to work ... and pay my taxes and everything, but I am not allowed to be here,” said Cardelas, an undocumented immigrant who has both a matricula and federal tax ID number. “It’s hypocritical.”

Cardelas, whose mother is a cook and whose father is a baker, got scholarships and worked two jobs -- as a secretary and a waitress -- to attend community college. Now she attends UCLA, where she is studying public policy and international relations. She pays in-state tuition.

But when she graduates, Cardelas said, she will be stuck back working low-wage jobs that don’t demand a valid Social Security card.

“You’re allowing me to go to school and get an education,” Cardelas said, “but why?”

Adding to the contradictions is uneven enforcement of immigration laws. The tough stance mostly ends at the border, critics say.

“Once you get in, the odds of getting picked up are pretty low,” said researcher Michael Fix of the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

In addition, employers, for the most part, face little risk of sanction for hiring undocumented workers. Meanwhile, to assist such workers in their job search, a thriving not-so-underground economy in fraudulent documents has developed. Phony green cards and Social Security cards are hawked daily in public places.

Many illegal immigrants point out that the government could find them if it really wanted to; many have left a clear paper trail. But ironically, undocumented immigrants -- unless they have committed crimes besides illegal entry -- often face deportation only if they call attention to themselves by applying for legal residency and being denied.

That’s what happened with Celestino Morales, 39, who came to the United States from Mexico in 1989 and has worked and paid taxes here ever since. In 2002, Morales sought legal residency. The immigration authorities determined that he did not qualify. Now Morales may be forced to leave his wife and daughters and return to Mexico.

“It seems unjust what they are doing,” said Morales, who owns a home in East Los Angeles. “I don’t bother anyone.”

Some illegal immigrants say they are torn between doing the right thing and maintaining the basic deceptions that make their lives here possible.

Orange County resident Ana Maria Camacho, 35, got her job as a dental intake assistant by using a phony Social Security card, so she can’t tell her boss her real name.

But figuring it might help her prospects for gaining legal status, she pays taxes -- using her real name and a legitimate taxpayer identification number.

The problem is, Camacho can’t report her real earnings or their source because she works under another name. So she makes up that part, calling herself a caretaker for senior citizens.

“It gets to the point that we don’t even know who we told which lie to,” said Jorge Camacho, 37, Ana’s husband.

“Or who to tell the truth to,” Ana Maria added.

Much of the nation’s wavering on illegal immigration stems from a lack of national direction, say academics and other experts. State and local governments end up making their own -- often varying -- policies, while the free market sets its own rules.

For example, some cities have opened day labor centers to manage workers who gather on streets and sidewalks, whereas others have banned them from congregating.

Some states, such as Oregon, allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Others, such as California, don’t.

But an unlicensed driver can buy car insurance.

Norberto Rivera, 33, an Orange County machinist, said he can’t get to his job without a car -- so he bought one, used. Though undocumented and unable to get a license, he registered it in his name with the state Department of Motor Vehicles and signed up for insurance on the car lot with a storefront broker for Lincoln General Insurance Co.

“Sometimes it seems the rules don’t make a lot of sense, and sometimes we immigrants cannot follow them all,” Rivera said. “But we can try to follow some.”