The historic law passed by Congress in 1986 to stem the flood of illegal aliens who poured into this country for many decades seems to be doing remarkably well after a fitful start.
Its success has been largely unnoticed amid the welter of complaints about it, complaints largely arising because the law is doing what it was supposed to do: curb the flow of illegals by reducing their chances for jobs.
But even as the law shows its value, at least two fundamental problems that it created are becoming painfully visible and urgently need congressional action.
One is the issue of dealing with the millions of illegal aliens--no one knows exactly how many--who came here before the law was passed but who were excluded from its protection because Congress arbitrarily picked Jan. 1, 1982, as a cutoff date.
The huge influx of ineligible aliens who came after 1982 cannot and should not be rounded up like criminals and thrown out just because Congress guessed that date would be as good a cutoff point as any other. And yet the people trapped in that congressionally created time box are more open than ever to vicious exploitation by unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the fact that the workers have few job options anymore.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a key architect of immigration reform, says he and others in Congress are studying legislative approaches to help those trapped workers.
Another increasingly serious problem is the massive sales of forged documents to newly arriving illegals who use them to try to claim, fraudulently, that they were here before the 1982 cutoff.
The obvious solution is a tamper-resistant Social Security card that would be used by all workers applying for jobs. Forgeries would be far more difficult (the system works well for credit cards); workers could be protected against discrimination, and honest employers could quickly determine if a job applicant is here legally. All workers are already required to have Social Security cards, so a new card would be no more intrusive on one's privacy.
The serious problems do not diminish the remarkable success of the Immigration Reform Act. Its achievement can best be estimated by the precipitous drop in the number of people picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service since the law was adopted.
In fiscal 1986, before the law took effect, the INS apprehended 1,767,400 people who were trying to slip into the United States illegally. In fiscal 1988, which ended last September, the number plunged to 1,008,143--a drop of more than 40%.
For the first three months of this fiscal year, the total is down an additional 15%. Huge numbers of illegals are still getting here, but at last this country is gaining control of its borders.
Credit for the diminished influx goes to a provision in the law that for the first time requires fines and even prison sentences for employers convicted of knowingly hiring illegal aliens.
That provision means that the exploiters of illegals can at last be punished. In the past, only the worker was punished, by being deported, and the exploiter was free to hire other illegals.
Penalties against the exploiters are just starting to bite. So far, about 1,200 employers have been fined more than $4 million for knowingly hiring illegals.
But even that token amount seems to be having the desired effect of reducing the number of employers who hire illegals. This creates openings for workers who are in this country legally but who cannot compete for jobs with the often desperate illegals, who are usually willing to work for wages far below the legal minimum.
The newly legalized workers, along with millions of other domestic workers, need to be helped by rigorous enforcement of worker protection measures such as minimum wage laws.
But worker protection laws have not been seriously enforced during the past eight years despite the calls for more "law and order" from former President Ronald Reagan and President Bush at the national level and from governors such as California's George Deukmejian.
Enforcement of pro-worker laws is especially difficult when illegals are involved, because they fear deportation and are afraid to file complaints against their bosses.
INS and local authorities report a substantial increase in street-corner pickup spots where employers prowl daily for the cheap labor of illegals.
As troublesome as that increase is, it is another indication that employers in established businesses are no longer as willing as they had been to hire the illegals, and many of those already here or still coming in are being forced to hustle jobs on street corners.
Also, wages in many of the lowest-paying menial jobs are increasing slightly as employers try to find domestic workers to replace illegals.
More than 3 million former illegal aliens have filed applications for amnesty and, therefore, are eligible to legally get jobs here.
These workers are no longer so easily exploited because they do not face the threat of deportation if they complain. Also, their availability has reduced fears of massive labor shortages caused by the immigration law.
Although it needs improvement, the immigration reform measure that was passed after decades of debate appears to be improving what was an unacceptable way of helping jobless foreign workers and providing cheap labor for devious employers.