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Clinton Differs With Wilson Ideas on Immigration : Policy: President says he 'sympathizes' with governor but that he favors a 'different tack.' However, he reveals that Administration is looking at the use of ID cards.


OAKLAND — Making his first public comments on Gov. Pete Wilson's calls for fundamental changes in the nation's immigration policies, President Clinton said Thursday that he "sympathizes" with Wilson's concerns about the impact illegal immigration is having on California "but I believe we ought to take a different tack."

The federal government must toughen its enforcement of immigration laws, Clinton said, adding that his Administration is examining the feasibility of creating a tamper-proof national identity card which would be aimed, in part, at preventing illegal immigrants from taking advantage of government benefit programs, something Wilson also has advocated.

Civil liberties groups have strongly opposed similar plans in the past. Clinton said, however, that he now believes the idea "ought to be examined."

But, he said, "I don't think we should change the Constitution," as Wilson has suggested, to deny citizenship for children born here to parents who are in the country illegally.

In addition, Clinton said, he disagrees with Wilson's suggestions to shut off emergency medical treatment for illegal immigrants. Such a policy, he suggested, would create more problems than it solves. He noted, for example, that "it is probably very much in everyone else's interest" to provide medical care to treat people who have communicable diseases.

Moreover, he added, "none of us would tolerate just letting people die on the street if it came to that."

Clinton's statements, in an interview with The Times on Air Force One as he traveled here after meeting with Pope John Paul II in Denver, marked his most extensive public discussion so far of future policy options on immigration--an issue that White House advisers say they believe could become one of the most politically difficult for his presidency.

His mention of a tamper-proof identification card was the first suggestion of a potentially far-reaching policy change.

Groups advocating greater control of illegal immigration long have argued that the flourishing market in phony documents allows widespread fraudulent access to welfare and other government benefit programs.

But civil liberties groups, along with many conservatives, have joined forces over the years to block any action toward developing a tamper-proof identification card, arguing that it potentially would give the government far too much control over individuals and likening such cards to the internal passports once required in the former Soviet Union.

Clinton acknowledged those arguments. "I know that a lot of the immigration groups and advocates have said that any kind of identification card like that sort of smacks of Big Brotherism," he said.

But, he continued, he believes that the idea should be examined and that it is under discussion as part of the health care reform effort being headed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Health care task force aides have discussed the likelihood that a reform program would provide all Americans with "health security" cards that would guarantee health benefits to all. But so far, they have not widely discussed the possibility that such a concept would be linked with the more controversial issue of a tamper-proof identification card.

Both in the interview and in his past statements on immigration, Clinton has tried to toe a careful line--advocating a tougher set of policies to handle illegal immigration while assuring the Democratic Party's base of voters in minority communities that he remains committed to continuing legal immigration and the cultural diversity it brings.

Over the long term, Clinton said, he continues to hope that the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada will reduce immigration pressure by improving the standard of living in Mexico and by improving development in that country so that fewer people feel compelled to migrate to the maquiladora zone near the U.S. border, where American-owned factories offer employment.

In the shorter term, the only way to avoid having the immigration debate damage the nation's social fabric, Clinton argued, is for the government to begin demonstrating to citizens that it is taking real action to enforce the nation's immigration laws.

If the government can achieve that, he said, politicians will find that "the rhetoric of calling for more extreme solutions may be of limited usefulness" to them.

On the other hand, he warned, if the government is unable to "show some more discipline" in its control of illegal immigration, "I'm afraid the genie out of the bottle will be passion to shut off legal immigration.

"This country has greatly benefited from its immigrants for 200 years," Clinton said, and should not allow "aversion to illegal immigration" to create an "aversion to legal immigration."

California, in particular, will continue to benefit from its large immigrant population, he predicted.

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