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NEWS ANALYSIS : Many Obstacles to Wilson Plan on Immigration


Deny education and health care to illegal immigrants. Refuse citizenship to their children. Create a tamper-resistant identification card for legal immigrants. And, finally, link the North American Free Trade Agreement to Mexican cooperation in deterring border-jumpers.

In seeking to combat illegal immigration, Gov. Pete Wilson has assembled an amalgam of proposals that have long been part of the raging immigration debate. Some have been viewed as fringe ideas; others have invited more serious consideration; at least one appears to be a novel twist on a long-pending proposal to create a national identification card for employment purposes.

Underlying these ideas is an assumption that many immigration experts believe is dubious, yet forms the bedrock of Wilson's proposals: "Massive illegal immigration will continue as long as the federal government continues to reward it . . . (by) providing incentives to illegal immigrants," Wilson wrote to President Clinton this week in a letter laying out his proposals.

Most immigration experts believe that economic opportunity--jobs--draws most migrants to the United States. Yet in choosing his proposals, the governor pointedly omitted some mainstream suggestions to bolster laws and enforcement efforts against the hiring of illegal immigrants, thus reducing the employment magnet.

At this point, all the governor's proposals face serious obstacles before enactment is possible. All probably require some action by Congress or the White House. The governor's most provocative proposal--to refuse citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants--would probably need a constitutional amendment. His plan to withhold education from illegal immigrant students would mean overturning a Supreme Court ruling.

What follows is a rundown of the governor's major proposals.

Refusing Citizenship

This is the most incendiary proposal, because it seems to go against a national ethic: In a nation of immigrants, birthright provides citizenship. Indeed, the so-called citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifies that citizenship be granted to anyone born on U.S. soil. The post-Civil War measure was aimed at guaranteeing the citizenship of freed slaves, overturning the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.

Canada, Mexico and many Latin American nations also automatically confer citizenship based on place of birth.

Some countries--including many European nations--base citizenship largely on parentage. Thus, many so-called guest workers and other foreign laborers working in European nations have slim or no prospects of becoming citizens of their adopted nations.

Several bills pending in Congress would create a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the offspring of illegal immigrants. But most analysts give the idea slim chance of passage. Passage of a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate, plus ratification by 38 of the nation's 50 statehouses.

In targeting the citizenship question, Wilson and other proponents maintain that the automatic citizenship requirement is an incentive for illegal immigrants to give birth in the United States. As U.S. citizens, the children are eligible for federal welfare payments and other benefits.

Besides calling the proposal contrary to U.S. tradition, critics say it is unworkable and counterproductive. Such a plan would create a second-class tier of stateless youths with little hope of advancement, detractors say, adding another explosive element to the nation's population.

Denying Education

Proponents say education, like other social services, is a lure for illegal immigrants. The governor says it costs the state $1 billion annually to educate those here unlawfully.

But critics respond that new settlers come here primarily for jobs, not schooling. Moreover, critics say stripping illegal immigrants of education--like denying their children citizenship--would do nothing to deter illicit migration, but it would shut off newcomers from self-advancement and opportunity.

As with the citizenship proposal, those espousing an education cutoff face a long haul.

Specifically, proponents would have to mount a battle to overturn a landmark 1982 Supreme Court case, known as Plyler v. Doe, which found that all children are entitled to a free public education regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents. By a 5-4 margin, the justices in that case upheld a lower court ruling striking down a restrictive Texas law.

Observers say they know of no similar case wending its way through the legal system; at any rate, the court might be hesitant to overturn so recent a precedent.

Restricting Health Care

The governor would like to see health and other benefits stopped, contending that such payments encourage illegal immigration. But exactly what Wilson is seeking remains murky.

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