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Conferees OK Bill to Crack Down on Illegal Immigrants

Congress: Clinton is expected to sign measure beefing up Border Patrol, toughening smuggling penalties. School issue, which was stumbling block, is removed.

September 25, 1996|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Two years after California voters sent a blunt message to Congress with the passage of Proposition 187, House and Senate negotiators approved a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration Tuesday amid deep divisions over the measure's practical and political ramifications.

The legislation, which President Clinton is expected to sign with some modifications, would impose beefed-up barriers at the border and double the number of Border Patrol agents there. It would impose more stringent penalties on those who smuggle illegal immigrants into the country or forge documents.

"We should continue to welcome immigrants--but [legal] immigrants who are willing to work and contribute," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chief House sponsor of the bill. "We are going to keep the welcome mat out but we're not going to become a doormat."

Critics, however, contend that the thick document strikes only a glancing blow on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and is too tough on immigrants who followed all the rules when they arrived.

The White House holds some leverage in forcing Republicans to compromise on the bill's final language. Because the legislation might be added to a budget bill in the final days of the session, the president could delay that measure until lawmakers eager to leave town to campaign for reelection agree to changes.

As the panel rushed Tuesday to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the bill and send it toward final passage, there were none of the street protests, school walkouts or waving of Mexican flags that punctuated the public debate over Proposition 187 in California. Still, the divisive 1994 ballot measure was very much in mind.

Inside a crowded conference room, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein explained the political potency of the issue to colleagues, saying she almost lost her reelection because she opposed Proposition 187, which passed by landslide proportions but has since become mired in the courts.

"It's a polarizing issue," she said. "It's something about which people feel strongly. You can't win no matter what you do."

At the same time, the sponsors of Proposition 187 were acting like the true architects of the legislation.

"There never would have been a discussion, especially during a presidential election, about illegal immigration if the people and the state of California had not pushed the envelope with Proposition 187," said Barbara W. Kiley, state co-chairman of Proposition 187 and mayor pro tem of Yorba Linda.

One provision of Proposition 187 that caused great uproar in California--allowing states to oust illegal immigrants from public schools--became the main stumbling block in the congressional bill. That measure, proposed by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), was dropped at the last minute.

Even so, many of the bill's provisions are focused on California. The Border Patrol, for instance, would be doubled over the next five years to 10,000 agents, many of whom would be stationed in California. Additional physical barriers would be erected, as well, including 14 miles of triple fencing south of San Diego.

Penalties would be increased for document fraud and the smuggling of illegal immigrants, problems that lawmakers say have hit California especially hard. The bill would expand a pilot project already underway in Orange County to help employers across the country verify job applicants' work eligibility through a government database.

Because of opposition from business groups, the bill would not increase sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. It also would not require employers to participate in the worker verification system, a loophole that critics say would allow some unscrupulous businesses to hire illegal workers.

The bill also would make it easier for immigration authorities to deport illegal immigrants by streamlining the appeals process. And although illegal immigrants are not currently eligible for most public benefits, the bill would strengthen enforcement of those prohibitions, exempting emergency medical care, immunizations and treatment of diseases.

Still causing unease among many Democrats are provisions that would restrict benefits for legal immigrants even further than the recently passed welfare reform bill and set higher income requirements for those who seek to sponsor legal immigrants into the country. In both the House and Senate, some Democrats were devising delaying tactics that could be used to wrest last-minute concessions from the majority.

All the Democrats on the conference, except Feinstein, refused to sign the conference report to protest the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of Republicans and the last-minute changes that they said make the bill too tough on legal immigrants.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) argued that it was "weak on illegal immigration but harsh on American working families, legal immigrants and refugees."

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