In the first six months of the sweeping federal program aimed at controlling illegal immigration into the United States, the measure has begun to change the lives of the nation's undocumented alien population and force employers to adjust to a whole new layer of government regulation.
But despite the swift creation of a new bureaucracy to administer and enforce dozens of new regulations, the law's long-term impact remains in doubt.
Since May 5, the day the new immigration program started, nearly 1 million illegal aliens have emerged from life in the underground to apply for legalization under a yearlong amnesty. That figure, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say, is halfway to their goal of 2 million applications by next May.
But observers of the INS performance point to a recent marked drop-off in applications as evidence that the agency may not reach its own projected numbers by the program's end.
"It's been more successful than anyone would have imagined at this point, but still a lot remains to be seen," said Doris Meissner, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Worl1679839333of the INS, expressing a consensus among experts.
Although the agency has won praise for setting up scores of efficient legalization offices, the amnesty program has progressed in lurches. There have been delays at processing centers. Poor turnout has plagued some legalization centers and many service agencies that contracted with INS to help immigrants prepare cases. A growing number of such offices are closing or reducing their staffs.
Immigrant advocates blame the diminishing numbers on the agency's restrictive interpretations of the law and its slowness to resolve questions about who qualifies for amnesty. Agency officials blame problems on poor planning and training by community groups.
In the first two months of employer sanctions, the other major phase of the law that was implemented in September, more than 7 million businesses have been notified of strict new requirements to demand proof of residence from their employees and to refuse work to illegal aliens. Hoping for mass voluntary compliance, the INS has already warned more than 100 firms and fined several others as examples of its intent to vigorously enforce the law.
Compliance may not be widespread, early evidence shows. And both supporters and critics of the INS warn that its main aim--to reduce the flow of illegal aliens into the country--may be jeopardized by the law's failure to hold employers fully accountable for the validity of their workers' documents. The result, many experts say, could be a new flood of fraudulent work papers beyond the control of INS agents.
Prosecutions for using phony documents in the workplace have already begun with a handful of indictments. Government officials have also warned that they are seeing an increase in fraudulent papers among amnesty applicants and, especially, farm workers who are applying for legalization under separate regulations.
Agency officials say their efforts at reducing illegal immigration are already working, borne out by a 34% drop in arrests of undocumented aliens at the U.S.-Mexico border between November, 1986--when the immigration law was enacted--and this month. Still, more than 1 million people were caught crossing the border in the last fiscal year.
"We've done one fine job," INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson said. "So far, we're right on target."
Some experts insist that border traffic slowed because of early fears among immigrants of the law's potential effects on the workplace instead of the realities of the last six months. Those reductions could evaporate if officials are not able to fully deliver on their projections of fewer jobs for illegal workers and vastly toughened enforcement.
Immigration experts say it is still too early to give a verdict on the effectiveness of the fledgling law. But some independent studies have begun to surface, cautiously noting the program's success stories while exposing potential long-term flaws.
"The INS has made a good-faith effort. Their approach seems reasonable," said James Blume, group director of immigration for the federal General Accounting Office, which just released the first of three annual assessments of the law.
Adherence Not Widespread
But last month, a high-ranking U.S. Labor Department official reported that an early survey of business reaction to the record-keeping requirements of employer sanctions showed that adherence is not widespread. Michael Baroody, assistant secretary for policy, said spot checks by investigators indicated that only a third of the nation's businesses were in full compliance. Another third were complying, but not fully, and a final third were either ignoring or actively flouting the law.