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House OKs Major Effort to Cut Illegal Immigration

Congress: Senate approval of sweeping measure is likely. Proposed restrictions on schooling face less certain future.

September 26, 1996|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House endorsed an across-the-board assault on illegal immigration Wednesday, approving legislation that would tighten the nation's borders, expedite deportations and curtail all but the most essential public benefits available to immigrants.

The sweeping crackdown, approved by a vote of 305 to 123, appears likely to win Senate passage in the waning days of the 104th Congress, although some Democratic critics said they would use delaying tactics to force further concessions.

President Clinton has expressed reservations about some provisions of the bill but is expected to sign the measure into law.

"This is among the most important pieces of legislation this Congress will handle," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "A country has to control its borders. . . . You can't please everybody, but this bill pleases many people."

In a separate, largely symbolic vote, the House approved legislation that would allow states to bar some children of illegal immigrants from attending public school. Although the schooling measure, sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), appears destined to die in the Senate, it underscores the hardening of attitudes on the issue of immigration and its powerful effect on election-year politics.

The back-to-back House actions--endorsed by all California's Republicans and a handful of the state's Democrats--mark the most sweeping immigration-reform legislation in a decade and come in the wake of the anti-immigration Proposition 187 ballot measure approved by California voters two years ago.

"California's working families went to the voting booth in 1994 and demanded action to end the scourge of illegal immigration, and this Congress has clearly and unambiguously responded," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

Critics, however, said the House had largely squandered an opportunity to attack illegal immigration more aggressively by softening provisions dealing with employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Jobs remain the primary magnet for those illegally entering the country, critics said.

Democrats also complained that the bill unfairly targets legal immigrants by restricting the benefits they may receive even more than the recent welfare reform law and by setting higher income requirements for those who wish to sponsor legal immigrants into the country.

"This is a popular issue," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "Unfortunately, this is a bill that does nowhere near as much as it could. This is a bill that says it would be good if we didn't have so many illegal immigrants but as long as we do we ought to get some work out of them."

The bill includes two provisions originally introduced by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside)--doubling the size of the Border Patrol by adding 5,000 new agents during the next five years, and denying federal benefits to illegal immigrants.

The legislation also returns to Anaheim City Jail a six-month program that allows the INS to conduct citizenship checks of detainees. After a previous trial run, the INS recently moved the project to the Orange County Jail, where a wider jail population could be screened.

But under amendments in the immigration bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), the citizenship identification program will resume temporarily, and local and state law enforcement officers can apply to be "deputized" to perform some INS duties, including investigating, apprehending, detaining, and deporting illegal immigrants.

The House passed, 254 to 175, an altered version of the schooling measure, weakening its language so that it does not apply to any illegal immigrants already enrolled in school.

"Should we be saying across the planet, 'Come to America and you will be guaranteed that taxpayers will provide the services?' " House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said during the debate. Those who vote no, Gingrich argued, should be prepared to vote to compensate California for the billions of dollars a year that the state spends to educate illegal immigrants.

Members of the Orange County congressional delegation supported the bill.

"I have 33 grandchildren," Packard said during the House debate. "Every dollar that we spend on illegal alien children is a dollar that my grandchildren do not have for their education. Our children are being short-changed."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), one of the original sponsors of California Prop. 187, which spawned the immigration bill, contended on Wednesday that millions of illegal immigrants are "breaking down" U.S. health-care and education systems by claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.

"They may be fine people, but they are consuming resources and benefits that were meant for citizens of the United States of America," Rohrabacher said.

The schooling restrictions were never included in the Senate immigration bill, and support for the measure is soft there. With time precious in the final days of the session, Senate leaders expressed doubt about whether the provision would be brought up for a vote at all.

Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Gebe Martinez.

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