Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


July 1996, Volume 3, Number 7

Congress Works to Revise Immigration Law

As Congress struggled to reconcile the immigration bills approved by the US House of Representatives in March, 1996, and by the Senate in May 1996, advocates flooded House-Senate conference committee members with arguments for and against specific provisions in one or both bills.

The House is not expected to formally name the members who will serve on the conference committee until Congress returns from the July 4 recess, in part because, once the House names its conferees, a conference bill must be produced within a limited time. However, deals between likely House and announced Senate conferees are being worked out privately.

The major provision attacked by admissionists and political liberals was the Gallegly amendment to the House bill, approved by a vote of 257 to 163 in March 1996. It would permit the states to deny unauthorized alien children free K-12 public education, as California has sought to do with Prop 187. Opponents of the Gallegly amendment argued that it was unfair to penalize children for the fact that their parents illegally brought them into the US, and pointed to the danger to US society of having uneducated children in its midst, and to the costs of verifying each child's legal status.

In addition, immigration advocates tried to soften or eliminate the provisions of the House and Senate bills that would define the receipt of means-tested federal benefits by legal immigrants as violating the existing prohibition of becoming a "public charge," and thus making possible the deportation of legal migrants on that ground.

Campaigning in California on June 19, Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate, endorsed the Gallegly amendment, saying that states should have the choice of denying public education to illegal alien children, since they bear the costs, which Dole put at $1.8 billion annually to California. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) introduced Dole and asserted that "it's time to stop making apologies for putting Americans first." House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says that "offering free, tax-paid goods to illegals has increased the number of illegals."

President Clinton has hinted that he will veto an immigration reform bill that includes the Gallegly amendment, a veto that some Republicans believe would hurt Clinton's chances of winning California in the presidential election. In this, Clinton had the support of 47 Senators, including five Republicans, who threatened on June 10 to vote against a final immigration bill that included the Gallegly amendment.

Dole supported Prop 187 in 1994, which Clinton opposed.

If the Gallegly amendment becomes law, and is upheld by a US Supreme Court reversal of the 1982 Plyler v Doe decision, states will be able to order K-12 schools to check the status of all enrolling students each year. Such checks would keep out the estimated 600,000 to 700,000 or 1.5 percent unauthorized children among the 45 million K-12 pupils in public schools. Another six million children who attend private schools would not be affected.

The cost of educating illegal alien children in the US is $3 to $3.5 billion per year, based on an average cost of $5,000 per child per year. The Urban Institute estimated the number of illegal alien children in schools in the seven major immigrant states in 1994: California, 307,000; Florida, 97,000; Texas, 94,000; New York, 88,000; Illinois, 24,000; New Jersey, 16,000; and Arizona, 15,000.

There was similar lobbying over the sponsorship and benefit changes included in the bill that affect legal immigrants. Under US immigration law, an immigrant is deportable if he/she becomes a "public charge" in the US. In order to secure an immigration visa for a relative, US-resident sponsors commonly sign an affidavit promising to support the immigrant once he/she is here.

Under current practice, the US sponsor and the immigrant must have a combined income that is at least 100 percent of the income at the US poverty line for the US sponsor AND the immigrant(s) being sponsored. At the present time, that would be, for example, $18,220 for a US family of three sponsoring an immigrant couple--five people in all.

Many immigrants who are sponsored by US residents nonetheless apply for federally-funded benefits after they arrive. US courts have held that the sponsors' affidavits are not binding, so that the government cannot sue a US sponsor for the welfare benefits that were paid to an immigrant whom the sponsor promised to support.

The pending immigration bills would raise the income required of US residents to sponsor an immigrant to 200 percent of the poverty line (House) or 125 percent of the poverty line (Senate), make the affidavits binding on the US sponsor, and deem or assume that the immigrant has access to the sponsor's income for the purpose of determining whether the immigrant is eligible for benefits.

Advocates for immigration attacked the income requirement for sponsors, arguing that it would permit only "rich Americans" to sponsor immigrants.

Another provision in the proposed law would permit the deportation of immigrants who received federal benefits for 12 months within the first five years in the US (Senate) or first seven years (House), the immigrant could be deported.

Most groups favorable to immigration opposed this extension of the grounds for deportation, calling attention to the wide range of benefit claims that could lead to deportation, including e.g., federal student loans and job training programs, and outlining the health threat to US residents from immigrants who avoided obtaining subsidized medical care. Using cases of immigrants who received training or education and now are successful, advocates asked whether the US would really deport successful immigrants. For example, an estimated 500,000 legal immigrant college students receive $700 million in federal assistance each year, and many are employed by major US corporations.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the proposed restrictions on immigrant access to benefits could save federal taxpayers up to $7 billion over seven years. Many members of Congress said that they supported the restrictions on immigrant access to federal benefits to balance the budget, not to discourage immigration.

In attacking the denial of federally subsidized health benefits, advocates stressed that services such as public health cut public expenditures in the long run by minimizing the spread of communicable diseases, avoiding emergency room care for treatable diseases, and improving the health of US-citizen babies.

One issue that arises in these proposed new restrictions on access to schools, benefits, and health is their administrative costs. Opponents of the restrictions argue that the cost of checking the legal status of pupils enrolling in school or seeking benefits would be formidable.

Proponents of restrictions, on the other hand, argue that administrative costs would be a marginal addition to current screening procedures. Schools already verify age, residence, and immunization, for example, and the income of beneficiaries of means-tested programs is checked, since they will not be reimbursed if they provide benefits to persons with incomes above qualifying levels.

This suggests two major considerations in evaluating the arguments. First, how much money would the restrictions save in the short and long runs? Second, would the benefit restrictions have as a side effect the discouragement of legal immigrants likely to need tax-supported benefits?

The Gallegly amendment is perhaps the clearest example of a possible new trend in industrial democracies--use integration policy to affect immigration flows. The theory is that fewer benefits will discourage illegal immigrants from coming, or staying.

Research suggests that illegal aliens generally come to the US for jobs, not welfare or other benefits, so the restrictions on benefits for legal immigrants may wind up pushing what is now in part a federal responsibility onto states, cities, and families without affecting the influx of illegal immigrants.

Immigration may remain in the political spotlight during the summer of 1996 if Dole seriously tries to win California's 54 electoral votes, one-fifth of the number needed to be elected President. The Reform Party of Ross Perot may also keep immigration in the spotlight if it nominates as its presidential candidate Richard Lamm, the former governor of Colorado and an outspoken opponent of high levels of immigration.

Eric Schmitt, "2 Senior Republican Lawmakers Buck Party to Oppose Effort to Bar Education of Illegal Aliens," New York Times, June 22, 1996. Maria L. LaGanga, "Dole Endorses Prop. 187 Limits on Schooling," Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1996. Thomas Edsall, "Dole Urges Illegal-Immigrant Curbs," Washington Post, June 20, 1996. John Marelius, "Dole would put Clinton on spot on immigration," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 20, 1996. Michael Doyle, "School ban may imperil immigration bill," Sacramento Bee, June 11, 1996. Marcus Stern, "Immigration bill turns into key election issue," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 2, 1996. Marguerite Abadjian, "US Immigration: New Bill to Cap Angry Debate," Inter Press Service, May 30, 1996.