WASHINGTON — A respected, bipartisan federal commission issued a sweeping blueprint Friday for reform of immigration policy, calling for cutting off most public benefits to illegal immigrants, creating a much-disputed computerized registry for job eligibility and making it tougher to illegally cross the border.
Pointedly drawing a line between legal and illegal immigrants, the commission urged a near-total ban on public benefits and services to illegal immigrants, while generally opposing a cutoff of aid to legal permanent residents.
"If a person is here unlawfully, he should be entitled to no benefits," said former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "Illegal aliens . . . broke the law to get here. They never intended to become a part of our social community and they are not entitled to benefits."
However, Jordan balked at denying public education to illegal immigrants, one of the central aims of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigration initiative on California's November ballot.
"I just regret that the political atmosphere and environment in the state of California has yielded such an ill-considered proposition," Jordan said in impromptu comments after the report was released.
In general, the commission endorsed a series of recommendations aimed at stopping illegal immigration that are increasingly gaining acceptance in mainstream policy circles. Many of those could be implemented by the Clinton Administration, though the costs could be substantial and Congress would have to come up with billions of dollars.
The White House and the Justice Department embraced the report. A high-ranking White House official termed it "very useful. . . . We agree with the commission on a number of significant steps, and we are heading in a similar direction."
But several suggestions--notably the proposal for some kind of national computerized verification system for workers--remain extremely controversial among immigrant and civil rights groups, who condemn the plan as too costly and an infringement on civil liberties.
"This would lead to Big Brother," said Art Montes of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The 250-page report called on the federal government to make its immigration policies more credible through tougher and smarter enforcement--and more tax dollars. The commission did not directly address the growing calls for new congressional limits on legal immigration, which is now at record levels, but said that legal immigration in general benefits the nation.
Congress created the commission in 1990 and required that it issue a report this year and again in 1997. This year's report is particularly timely because immigration has emerged as a red-hot political issue--mostly in California and six other states affected by millions of illegal immigrants.
The nine-member commission said the 32 recommendations are a politically neutral foundation for reforming a deeply flawed system.
"The credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: People who should get in do get in; people who should not get in are kept out, and people who are judged deportable are required to leave," the report said.
On those scores, the commission found existing federal procedures wanting but warned that improving them will be costly.
"If the nation is serious about controlling illegal immigration, it must commit substantially more resources than are currently allocated," the report said.
Commission members said most of the recommendations can be implemented under existing laws. The Clinton Administration has already endorsed many of the ideas, notably the call for tougher border enforcement.
The commission decried the anti-immigration sentiments underlying much of the recent national furor over the topic.
"We strongly denounce the hostility toward immigrants that we find emerging in so many public and private debates," Jordan said. "But we disagree with those who would label efforts to control immigration as inherently anti-immigrant."
The continued flow of illegal immigration "undermines our commitment to legal immigration," Jordan said.
Established by Congress as part of the 1990 Immigration Act, the commission has four Republican and five Democratic members holding diverse views on immigration issues. The Democratic appointees include Lawrence H. Fuchs, a professor at Brandeis University and executive director of the last federal panel to tackle immigration, and Warren R. Leiden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
Republican appointees include Richard Estrada, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, and Robert Charles Hill, a lawyer and Reagan-era Justice Department official.
The report recommends a seven-point strategy "to prevent illegal entries and facilitate legal ones":