June 1996 Volume 3 Number 6
Immigration Reform Advances
On March 21, 1996 the US House of Representatives passed a bill 333-87 that would add agents to the US Border Patrol, take other steps to reduce illegal immigration to the US, and prevent legal immigrants from receiving welfare assistance. On May 2, 1996, the Senate approved a similar bill by a vote of 97-3, making it likely that some type of immigration reform law will be enacted in 1996.
Both Senate and House versions of immigration reform are known as H.R. 2202.
About 3.2 million illegal aliens were estimated to have been in the US in October 1992, and their number is believed to be increasing by about 300,000 per year. Half of the settled unauthorized alien population in the US is thought to have entered without inspection, and half are persons who entered lawfully. Most of the proposals in the new legislation are aimed at persons who sneak across the borders.
The Senate conference committee that was assigned the task of reconciling the separate bills was appointed in May; the House committee is expected to be appointed in early June. Congress is expected to vote on the resulting bill by summer. President Clinton will probably sign a bill if it does not include the House-passed provision that would allow states to deny K-12 education to illegal alien children.
The House and Senate bills include three major sets of measures to reduce illegal immigration and reduces the access of legal immigrants to welfare. First, both provide for stronger border enforcement, adding 1,000 Border Patrol agents per year for five years, bringing the total from 5,175 in 1996 to almost 10,000 by 2000. Both call for a 14-mile "triple fence" on the US-Mexican border south of San Diego, and would increase the penalties for smuggling aliens into the US and for using false documents to obtain US jobs or welfare assistance--document fraud could bring a $500,000 fine and 15 years in prison. Both bills also permit the Attorney General to allow local police departments to "seek, apprehend, and detain" illegal aliens who are subject to an order of deportation.
Second, both bills introduce pilot programs to enable employers to verify the status of newly-hired workers. The Senate bill would give the President up to eight years to test three verification programs and report the results back to Congress, while the House measure specifies a three-year voluntary pilot program for employers in five states -- California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Texas. No national worker eligibility verification system could be established, however, without another congressional vote. Both bills narrow the range of documents that persons seeking US jobs may present to employers as proof that they are lawful workers from the current 29 to six.
Third, both bills seek to prevent LEGAL immigrants from obtaining welfare benefits. Under current law, immigrants must show that they will not become "public charges" in the US, and this requirement is usually met by the US-based sponsors of relatives immigrating. They sign affidavits assuming financial responsibility for their relatives. If the pending legislation becomes law, these affidavits will become legally binding.
If immigrants apply for welfare assistance within 10 years of their arrival (Senate), or before they become naturalized US citizens (House), the welfare agency could "deem" or assume that the immigrant has access to his sponsor's income and assets. US residents who want to sponsor immigrants would have to have incomes of at least 125 percent (Senate) or 200 percent (House) of the poverty line ($14,700 for a family of four in 1993), up from the current requirement of at least a poverty line income.
Under the proposed legislation, if the immigrant and sponsor's incomes are so low that the immigrant nonetheless qualifies for assistance, the immigrant may become deportable. Under US law, an immigrant is deportable if she becomes a "public charge," defined in pending legislation as receiving welfare assistance for 12 months or more in a five-year period (Senate) or seven-year period (House).
The Senate bill makes illegal aliens eligible for emergency Medicaid, school lunches and other nutrition programs, immunizations, and short-term disaster relief, but permits legal immigrants to participate only in school lunch and nutrition programs.
The Government Accounting Office in May reported that 25 percent of the elderly supplemental security income recipients were legal immigrants. About two-thirds of the immigrants on SSI live in California, New York and Florida. SSI was established in 1972 to help people who do not qualify for Social Security benefits. In 1996, the maximum SSI payment is $470 a month for an individual and $705 for a couple. In 1995, about 6.5 million people received nearly $25 billion in federal SSI benefits, and $3 billion in state benefits.
The House and Senate bills differ in three important areas. The House bill, but not the Senate bill, would permit states to deny K-12 education to unauthorized alien children in the US. There are believed to be at least 600,000 such children in US schools, half in California.
Second, the House bill prohibits illegal alien parents from applying for welfare benefits on behalf of their US-born and US-citizen children. The US citizen children remain eligible, but a legal US resident would have to apply for benefits on their behalf. Third, the House bill permits, under certain circumstances, the immediate expulsion of foreigners who arrive in the US and apply for asylum; the Senate removed a similar provision on a 51-49 vote.
Many advocates are using the pending immigration legislation to preserve or remove provisions affecting immigrants in anti-terrorism law signed in April 1996. For example, under the "summary exclusion" procedures included in the anti-terrorism law, beginning in November 1996, INS officers at ports of entry will have final authority to exclude from the US aliens arriving without documents, and those arriving with false documents, who request asylum. Under current US law, an alien may request a hearing with an immigration judge before being removed from the US, and may seek judicial review of a denial of an asylum application and order of deportation.
Similarly, the anti-terrorism law eliminates the possibility that legal immigrants who have been in the US for at least seven years can avoid deportation if they were convicted of felony crimes in the US. The immigration bill relaxes this a bit, saying that the immigrant must be sentenced to five or more years in prison to be ineligible for 212(c) relief from deportation. In FY94, 4,100 legal immigrants asked to stay in the US after being convicted of crimes, and 1,800 were allowed to stay.
The anti-terrorism bill similarly does not permit immigration judges to suspend deportation for unauthorized aliens who have been in the US seven or more years if they entered without inspection. In FY94, 4,300 unauthorized immigrants asked to stay in the US, and 2,400 were allowed to stay. The immigration bill preserves suspension of deportation, renaming it cancellation of deportation or removal.
Eric Schmitt, "Provisions on Legal Immigrants Jeopardize Bill on Illegal Aliens," New York Times, May 28, 1996. Marcus Stern, "Debate stalls verification system on immigrant workers," San Diego Union-Tribune, May 13, 1996. Tatiana M. With, "Immigrants fear federal measures," Boston Globe, May 12, 1996. Eric Schmitt, " Senate Votes Bill Aimed at Aliens in US Illegally, Crackdown Gains, 97-3, Measure Faces Reconciliation with a House Version, and Perhaps a Clinton Veto," New York Times, May 3, 1996.