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Officials Decry U.S. Inaction on Immigrants : Government: State leaders complain to a congressional subcommittee about the lack of federal help with undocumented workers. They testify in Los Angeles during the panel's fifth hearing nationwide about the problem.

September 01, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A congressional subcommittee investigating the costs of illegal immigration as they affect local and state governments came to Los Angeles on Tuesday to hear California officials complain bitterly that the federal government expects them to pick up the tab for Washington's failure to enforce immigration laws.

"If Washington, D.C., were located in California, we would have taken care of this long ago," state Atty. Gen. Dan Lundgren testified. "It's out of sight, out of mind."

At the same time, the chairman of a House government operations subcommittee, Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), released a General Accounting Office report that cited serious flaws in the methods used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to estimate the size and character of the illegal immigrant population.

Although the GAO report said data collection methods have improved since its last such study in 1982, it noted that the federal government has no way to estimate the geographic distribution of illegal or legal immigrants. Such data is vital to local governments in determining costs of services.

Estimates vary widely on the the number of immigrants in the country without proper documents. The GAO report estimated that no more than 3.4 million illegal immigrants are in the United States.

The subcommittee hearing, the fifth in a series and the first in Los Angeles, focused on what Condit called "building a case" for the federal government's responsibility to states and counties to cover the costs associated with illegal immigration.

Tuesday's hearing at Los Angeles International Airport focused on California. Others have dealt with the problems of states such as Florida, Texas and New York that also have large illegal immigrant populations.

Condit, who represents a district outside Modesto, said the federal government "has ignored the INS for too long, has ignored illegal immigration for too long, and ignored California for too long."

Although Condit said he was trying to keep the issue narrowly focused and avoid the emotionalism often associated with debates about illegal immigration, that was not always possible at the sparsely attended hearing.

Assemblywoman Grace F. Napolitano, chairwoman of the Assembly Select Committee on Statewide Immigration Impact, told the hearing that illegal immigration is a major problem.

"But it is not a problem limited to people who are dark skinned," the Norwalk Democrat said. "What about the major influx of European and Canadian illegal immigration? They are able to blend right in with polite white society. . . . Where is the effort to herd them up into vans and buses and deposit them unceremoniously across the northern border?"

Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana concentrated his remarks on illegal immigrants convicted of crimes. He noted that one 1990 study found that nearly 80% of the illegal immigrant criminals deported by the INS had re-entered the country and been arrested within a year of release. About 87% of the rearrests were in Los Angeles County, he said.

"Sixteen months ago we had a riot in Los Angeles County," Dana went on. "I really believe that this issue was a major element, because of the serious crowding this immigration problem has developed in the inner city."

State Treasurer Kathleen Brown testified on her proposal to deport illegal immigrant convicts held in U.S. prisons and jails and negotiate international agreements to ensure that they serve out their full sentences. She said each year California spends more than $500 million to imprison such criminals, who under current treaty terms may be deported only if they agree to it.

"Right now, up to 14,000 illegal aliens are behind bars in California state prisons--that's enough undocumented criminals to fill four state prisons to almost twice their design capacity," she said. "Another 10,000 to 15,000 alien convicts are serving time in county jails."

But Lungren said that as much as he would like to deport all such convicts, he has concerns about Brown's proposal. He said the state is now responding to a number of lawsuits from inmates alleging mistreatment, involving everything from jail food that isn't the right temperature to cramped cells.

He said involuntary deportation might constitute cruel and unusual punishment. "The Constitution is the largest impediment," he said.

But Lungren, who said he had no "politically sexy proposal" to deal with illegal immigration, did endorse issuing tamper-proof Social Security cards, with an accompanying toll-free number to verify them, and hiring at least 2,000 more Border Patrol agents.

As for criminal illegal immigrants, he had his own suggestions--let the federal government house them in closed military bases--and figures to offer. For example, he said that in Santa Ana "60% of all felonies are committed by illegal aliens," although he did not provide a source for this information.

Santa Ana police and the Orange County district attorney's office said they could not confirm this figure, nor did they know where Lungren got it.

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