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Immigration Control Begins With Employer : Let's widen quotas for Mexico, Central America and China.

July 18, 1993|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer, former Times national correspondent, has written extensively on California and international affairs.

No one is serious about stopping illegal immigration. Yes, I know there is a lot of noise on the subject, as there always is during a recession. There is a clamor for rounding up undocumented workers and closing the border between California and Mexico, through which more than 600,000 illegal migrants pass each year.

But being serious on this issue means rounding up the employers who hire the undocumented workers, not the workers themselves. More important, it means strict enforcement of the labor laws so that exploitable cheap labor will lose its appeal. As long as jobs for the undocumented exist in the homes of Beverly Hills and the garment factories of South-Central L.A., they form an irresistible magnet to the poor of Mexico, Central America and China. Nothing short of a barrier reminiscent of the Berlin Wall will deter people with hungry children desperate for work. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recently proposed charging $1 a person for those entering the United States as a way of financing an increase in the undermanned Border Patrol. All that will do is create the world's greatest traffic jam between San Diego and Tijuana. The cost of additional guards to collect the tolls will probably wipe out the new income.

Anyone who has observed the Border Patrol in action knows their nightly routine is little more than a children's game of Capture the Flag as prisoners are taken and then let go at the border to try sneaking in again, often that same night. Tightening the border watch means only raising the tariff charged by smugglers and increasing the risk to people, including children, desperate to cross.

The story is similar in the interior, where the INS can only hold those undocumented arrestees who have committed serious crimes. The INS simply lacks the detention facilities or the money to keep all but a few prisoners for more than a matter of hours. Those who have not committed felonies are cited and ordered to show up for a hearing. Most don't. Those few who do can delay the process for years, and if they are Chinese, can win by making a claim for asylum on the grounds, approved initially by then-President Bush, that their reproductive rights are curtailed in their native land.

Going after undocumented workers is a well-documented failure. The alternative of drying up the jobs has never really been tried. There are two ways to do that. First, enforce the labor laws so that all workers, documented or not, are paid the minimum wage, receive time and a half for overtime and are covered by workers' compensation. Second, enforce the federal law that makes it a crime to hire undocumented workers.

There are more than 30 different identification cards, from Social Security to the "green card," that qualify a worker, and any one of them can be obtained for $25 on the streets of Santa Ana. Those who favor controlling illegal immigration should admit that it will only happen with the introduction of a tamper-proof national identity card that all Americans are required to carry.

I personally believe that's too high a civil-liberties price to pay for controlling immigration, but then again I do not share the alarm of those panicked by the problem. Nor do I believe that the undocumented are a burden on society, since they fill jobs others don't want and pay taxes while being ineligible for most benefits, including Social Security. But those, like Gov. Pete Wilson and Feinstein, who charge that the undocumented are ruining our economy, should come up with a means for documenting people who they feel are entitled to be here.

One compromise might flow out of the Clinton health-reform plan if it requires a health-insurance card as proof of coverage. If employers are required to provide health insurance, presumably they will be able to document the immigration status of their employees. More positively, if health insurance is required, then undocumented immigrants will lose much of their appeal as a cheap labor force.

Along with pressuring employers, including those who employ nannies and gardeners, it's essential that we develop more reasonable legal quotas for immigration. The quotas for Mexico, Central America and China need to be made far more realistic. Now, rich foreigners can enter at will merely by promising to create jobs.

But the waiting list for the masses yearning to breathe free must also offer them a plausible chance of legal entry. It's now 20,000 per country. Certainly 200,000 to 300,000 a year for Mexico seems in order.

Couple a shot at legal entry with the prohibition that those arrested for crossing illegally are permanently banned, and you have the beginnings of a program that just might work. Nothing else has. Certainly, the anti-foreigner posturing and cries for law and order have accomplished nothing.

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