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The Smart Way to Get a Handle on the Immigration Issue : Think incrementally, carefully (yes to required Social Security cards, and a border toll)--not emotionally or angrily

DEFUSING XENOPHOBIA: Myths and realities of the immigration issue; One in an occasional series

July 25, 1993

Boatloads of Chinese refugees offshore and foreigners arrested in last February's terrorist bombing in New York--not to mention continuing immigration from Latin America--have combined to again put illegal immigration high on the national agenda. This is a sensitive and politically volatile issue, but nothing is to be gained by not discussing it, and even less is to be gained by fearing change.

CONGRESS GETS INVOLVED--BUT PERHAPS TOO QUICKLY: Congress yet again is looking for new ways to deal with a complex issue that was supposed to have been resolved with the monumental Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. The very fact that this landmark legislation did not solve all the problems associated with illegal immigration should give Congress and the Clinton Administration a much-needed reality check before they plunge anew into "immigration reform." Some immigration-related problems are simply not amenable to easy solutions--and even when solutions are possible, they often will be expensive and controversial. But this is not to say that nothing should be tried.

Thirty different bills, by a recent count, have been introduced on Capitol Hill to deal with illegal immigration. Fortunately, only a few are harshly anti-immigrant. Although immigrants contribute much to this country--as they have throughout American history--they increasingly entail social costs. Like people in other countries, Americans are susceptible to anti-foreign appeals or nativist sentiment, especially in times of economic stress. It's encouraging that Congress members who have taken the lead on immigration--particularly Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Reps. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)--say they are doing so partly in the hope of preventing a nativist backlash against all immigrants. Such efforts are to be encouraged--even if in Feinstein's case obvious political factors (a reelection campaign in 1994) in part motivate her interest in immigration.

MAZZOLI'S PROPOSALS--THE GOOD AND THE BAD: Mazzoli, who helped draft IRCA, has had some good ideas about immigration. But his proposal to deny U.S. citizenship to children born here to illegal immigrants is not one of them. That won't help stem the tide. Illegal immigrants come to this country for jobs, not U.S. citizenship. Mazzoli's prohibition would not stop them from coming, but could give the immigration debate a mean-spirited tinge that would be counterproductive. After all, the Constitution does guarantee citizenship to people born here. If denying children citizenship won't stem the tide and is unconstitutional, what good is it?

Some other measures pending in Congress are useful, although they may need fine-tuning. Among short-term measures that Congress can act on quickly are bills by Schumer and Mazzoli to streamline asylum procedures. This country should always be willing to consider protecting foreigners who are persecuted in their homelands. But in recent years the nation's outdated asylum procedures have been abused by refugees who are here only to make money and file claims for political asylum simply to keep their jobs as long as possible. This is what many Chinese refugees are doing, claiming asylum through the Bush Administration's sincerely motivated but ill-conceived "China loophole"--which permits these claims because of their country's restrictive childbearing policies.

ANTI-SMUGGLER BILLS--TARGETING A SHAMEFUL COMMERCE: Congress should also give higher priority to cracking down on the smugglers of illegal immigrants. Traffickers in human cargo have never faced the opprobrium this nation accords drug smugglers. But their trade can be every bit as cruel, as the deaths of many would-be illegal immigrants attest. Congress must toughen the penalties for this crime.

The Clinton Administration should also direct the Justice Department and the nation's intelligence community to more closely monitor foreign smuggling operations, and to devise a more sophisticated system for keeping track of individuals who should be kept out of the country. Consider the radical Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, whose followers include the chief suspects in the World Trade Center bombing in New York. Because of an error at a U.S. consulate abroad, he slipped through the exclusion system and later set himself up in a New Jersey mosque. Clearly more reliable screening is needed.

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