The first of several major changes that Congress made last year in U.S. immigration laws will go into effect Tuesday. If the anxiety and confusion surrounding the start of the so-called "amnesty" program for illegal aliens is any indication of what is to come, both Congress and the Reagan Administration must be prepared to change the laws and to spend enough to make them work.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 is a well-intentioned effort to deal with a phenomenon that many Americans consider a serious problem--the presence of illegal immigrants in the United States. In the hope of stemming the flow of people here from abroad, the law prohibits employers from giving them jobs, except under special circumstances in agriculture. These employer sanctions will go into effect June 1. The bill's restrictive intent is balanced by the amnesty program, which aims to help the illegals who have been in this country for at least five years. The legalization program formally begins May 5, and will continue for one year.
We have serious doubts as to whether mere laws will keep ambitious people of poor nations from making their way to the United States. But the new laws exist, and it is the nation's duty to make them work as smoothly and humanely as possible.
Some community groups are doing just that. Los Angeles' Roman Catholic Archdiocese, for example, has already pre-registered more than 300,000 persons for amnesty. Among the many labor organizations whose memberships include illegal immigrants, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union has taken a similar lead role. So have activist groups serving the Latino and Asian-American communities. But the working relationship between these outside agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service has not always been easy or friendly.
Private groups have criticized the amount of money that INS plans to charge applicants for amnesty, which will range from $185 for an individual to $420 for an entire family. When added to the other costs that applicants for legalization have to pay, like doctors' fees for health examinations, the cost may prove burdensome for illegals with low-paying jobs. Other critics allege that new INS regulations are far too narrow and will exclude many persons from amnesty on technicalities. Some minority-group advocates are concerned that Justice Department regulations to prevent the new law from causing job discrimination against Latinos, Asian-Americans and others who look or sound "foreign" are slow in coming.
In fairness, not all these problems can be blamed on INS. An undertaking as large and unprecedented as the amnesty program would have entailed some confusion under the best of circumstances. And, to their credit, INS officials have shown a willingness to change some of the proposed regulations already. INS agents also seem to have gone out of their way to assure illegal immigrants who qualify for amnesty that they need not fear being detained and deported if they approach the agency to inquire about the legalization process.
But the main responsibility for making sure that the new immigration laws work well rests with Congress and the Administration.
Among the changes that may be necessary area more recent amnesty date so that the largest number of illegal immigrants possible can come out of hiding; more federal funds to help local governments pay the costs of schools, hospitals and other social services for newly legalized immigrants, and the creation of a counterfeit-proof Social Security card that all U.S. citizens would have to show before getting a job, which is the best way to prevent discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities.
The Administration must be prepared to spend the money needed to make INS more modern and efficient. It is the most overworked and undermanned agency in the federal bureaucracy because it has been historically underfunded, so the nearly $2 billion that the agency has requested for its budget this year and next may not be enough. In the future, genuine immigration reform will require a constant monitoring of the new laws, to make sure that they are up to date, and a willingness to pay whatever it costs to do things right.