Border Report

The fate of immigration reforms on Capitol Hill


After a rancorous year-long debate, Congress quietly bundled its illegal-immigration enforcement bill with the omnibus spending package passed September 30. The bill will nearly double the size of the 5,200-agent Border Patrol, ease procedures for deporting immigrants convicted of crimes, and strengthen the financial obligations sponsors of legal immigrants must assume.

It will also establish "voluntary" employment verification systems in five states with large illegal-immigrant populations. Employers who participate in the verification systems may have to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check the citizenship status of new employees; or states may establish "identity cards" that potential workers would have to present to their employers before starting work. (See "Bringing the Border War Home," October 1995.)

Despite assurances from the bill's chief House sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), that this provision would not lead to a national ID card, the bill forces states to develop uniform birth certificates. And new driver's licenses must include the carrier's Social Security number unless the state issuing the license passes a law exempting itself from this requirement. Even so, states must get every applicant's Social Security number and verify that number with the Social Security Administration.

Many immigration advocates are relieved that the bill did not restrict legal immigration, however. Thanks to a broad coalition of ethnic, religious, business, labor, privacy, and libertarian groups, proposals that would have cut legal immigration by as much as 40 percent were soundly defeated in both houses. "Lamar Smith and [Wyoming Republican Sen.] Alan Simpson tried to dramatically cut legal immigration and got their heads handed to them," says Cato Institute immigration policy analyst Stuart Anderson.

But these battles aren't over. Washington, D.C., attorney and immigration activist Rick Swartz believes Congress will take another whack at legal immigrants next year. Swartz, who orchestrated the "left-right" pro-immigration coalition, predicts the 105th Congress may succeed because this year's coalition is unlikely to reassemble. Swartz says traditional distrust between business groups and liberal labor, ethnic, and religious organizations makes any renewed coalition problematic. If cuts in immigration appear inevitable, he suggests, liberal groups may strike a deal with Congress to slash business visas in exchange for keeping family-based immigration numbers intact.

Cato's Anderson isn't as pessimistic. He points out that the House attempt to cut legal immigration was defeated by a resounding 238-183 margin and that Simpson, along with two of the most vocal anti-immigrant Democrats, Reps. John Bryant (Tex.) and Anthony Beilenson (Calif.), is retiring. Anderson thinks some modest cuts are likely, but that the current emphasis of immigration policy–keeping nuclear families intact–will be maintained. "If we can do that, and take the issue off the table for five or 10 years," he says, "that's not so bad."