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Election 2000 / Presidential Race

Immigration Challenges

September 10, 2000

During a White House meeting with Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox last month, President Clinton reminded his guest that the United States has "the most generous immigration policy in the world." And listening to the campaign oratory of George W. Bush and Al Gore, one can conclude that America is prepared to accept even more legal immigrants. But despite that tone, clearly pitched to Latino voters and others, the presidential contenders lack a coherent policy on immigration issues.

Both Gore and Bush support the expansion of the H1B visa program, which would double the number of high-skilled workers for a three-year period. The candidates agree that spouses and minor children of permanent residents should be allowed to stay with their families in the United States while their immigration applications are pending, and both reject anti-immigrant fears that underlie efforts like California's notorious Proposition 187 of 1994.

Gore and Bush have called for restructuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service, separating its enforcement arm from its visa and naturalization functions. And both men want to speed the naturalization process.

Gore's proposals go a bit further in that he supports amending the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act to include Haitians and many Central American refugees who fled the political violence of the Caribbean region during the 1980s but failed to win the favored refugee treatment afforded Cubans and Nicaraguans. Gore would also support programs allowing undocumented immigrants of good moral character who have lived and worked in the United States since 1986 or earlier to remain here permanently.

These are worthy ideas, but taken together they fall short as a long-term policy.

With the economy in good shape, the mood of the country is less anti-immigrant than it was six years ago, according to a Gallup poll taken last year. That test showed only 44% of Americans favored further restricting immigration, down from 65% in 1995. Now is the time for each candidate to articulate a coherent immigration policy, one that encompasses U.S. economic and labor needs as well as immigration's historical past.

Immigration should be a positive experience for the receiving communities, the sending countries and the immigrants themselves. A fully formed immigration policy must start with Mexico. The next president should explore new ideas about border enforcement and migration with incoming Mexican President Fox. One idea being discussed by border experts goes like this: While the U.S. Border Patrol controls the flow of immigrants in the urban areas, Mexico stops smugglers from exposing Mexicans to death in deserts and drowning in border rivers. In exchange for such cooperation, Mexico gets more visas for temporary workers under a special relationship and, ideally, the flow of immigrants becomes largely legal, rather than illegal.

Under such a program, the U.S. might provide Mexico with a negotiated number of visas for a two-year period; a visa would be renewable if both countries agreed and the immigrant had not committed a crime. Workers with only a seasonal arrangement would return to Mexico after finishing the temporary work.

Currently, we have tough laws that are unenforceable. What we need are smart laws that can be enforced, bringing order to a chaotic and often dangerous situation.

Another area that needs attention is the assimilation and integration of immigrants. Both candidates should frame policies to determine how immigrants should be integrated once they arrive and how the communities in which they concentrate, like Los Angeles, can be better prepared for their arrival.

One aim of these policies should be to accelerate the integration of immigrants through supplemental education programs, including English language classes. The federal government should provide more economic assistance to communities affected by heavy immigration, such as for public health care.

This big but largely undiscussed challenge for the two presidential candidates amounts to shaping a national immigration policy that is orderly, safe, legal, consistent and fair to all sides.

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