Illegal Immigration

By Peter Katel

Do illegal workers help or hurt the economy?

More than 10 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and 1,400 more arrive every day. Once concentrated in a few big states like Texas and California, they are rapidly moving into non-traditional areas such as the Midwest and South. Willing to work for low wages, the migrants are creating a backlash among some residents of the new states, which have seen a nearly tenfold increase in illegal immigration since 1990. While illegal immigrants only make up about 5 percent of the U.S. work force, critics of the nation's immigration policies say illegal immigrants take Americans' jobs, threaten national security and even change the nation's culture by refusing to assimilate. But immigrants' advocates say illegal migrants fill the jobs Americans refuse to take and generally boost the economy. Proposals to deal with illegal immigration include the Real ID bill, which would block states from issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and “! ;guest worker” programs granting temporary legal status to illegal workers.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent arrests Mexicans who crossed into the United States illegally near Douglas, Ariz., on April 4, 2005. (Getty Images/Scott Olson)

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The only future awaiting María and Juan Gomez in their tiny village in Mexico was working the fields from sunup to sundown, living mostly on tortillas and beans. So 10 years ago, when they were both 17, they crossed into the United States illegally, near San Diego. Now ensconced in the large Latino community outside Washington, D.C., they are working hard at building a life for themselves and their young son.

Juan and María (not their real names) follow a simple strategy — staying out of trouble and undercutting competitors. Juan does landscaping, charging about $600 for major yard work — about $400 less than the typical legal contractor. María cleans houses for $70; house-cleaning services normally charge $85 or more.

They aren't complaining, but María and Juan know they offer bargain-basement prices. “You walk down the street, and every house being built, Hispanics are building it,” María says in Spanish. “This country is getting more work for less money.”

Indeed, some sectors of the economy might have a hard time functioning without illegal workers. Brendan Flanagan, director of legislative affairs for the National Restaurant Association, insists “Restaurants, hotels, nursing homes, agriculture — a very broad group of industries — are looking for a supply of workers to remain productive,” he says, because in many parts of the country, native workers aren't available at any price. Moreover, lobbyists for employers insist that their members can't tell false papers from the real ones that employees present to prove they're here legally.

Mexican immigrants in Homestead, Fla., negotiate with a man seeking four workers on May 7, 2004. Illegal immigrants make up only about 5 percent of the U.S. work force, but critics say they are taking many Americans' jobs by offering to work for low wages and no benefits. Immigration advocates counter that immigrants do the jobs Americans don't want and bolster the economy. Getty Images/Joe Raedle

But Harvard economist George Borjas counters that when an American employer claims he cannot find a legal or native-born worker willing to do a certain job, “He is leaving out a very key part of that phrase. He should add 'at the wage I'm going to pay.' ” [1]

Many Americans blame illegal immigrants like María and Juan not only for depressing wages but also for a host of problems, including undermining U.S. security.

But the U.S. government refuses to tighten up the border, they say.

“The reason we do not have secure borders is because of an insatiable demand for cheap labor,” says Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading immigration-control advocate in Congress. “We have the ability to secure the border; we choose not to. The Democratic Party sees massive immigration — legal and illegal — as a massive source of voters. The Republican Party looks at the issue and says, 'Wow, that's a lot of cheap labor coming across that border.' ”

Some other politicians are following Tancredo's lead. In late April, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ratcheted up his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric. Praising anti-immigration activists monitoring the Mexican border in Arizona, he said, “Our federal government is not doing their job. It's a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders.”

There are more than 10 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, compared with 3.5 million only 15 years ago, according to the non-profit Pew Hispanic Center. [2] And since 2000 the illegal population has been growing by a half-million illegal immigrants a year — nearly 1,400 people a day, according to the Census Bureau and other sources. [3]

While illegal immigrants make up only about 5 percent of the U.S. work force, they are rapidly making their presence known in non-traditional areas such as the Midwest and South. Willing to work for low wages, undocumented workers are creating a political backlash among some residents in the new states, which have seen a nearly tenfold increase in illegal immigration since 1990.

“Immigration is now a national phenomenon in a way that was less true a decade ago,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies said. “In places like Georgia and Alabama, which had little experience with immigration before, people are experiencing it firsthand. Immigrants are working in chicken plants, carpet mills and construction. It's right in front of people's faces now.” [4]

The debate has taken on populist undertones, says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), because some in the public perceive a wide gap between policymakers' positions and popular sentiment in affected regions. “The issue is about elites, major financial interests and global economic forces arrayed against the average American voter,” said Stein, whose group favors strict immigration policies. “The depth of anger should not be underestimated.” [5]

Grass-roots organizations have formed in seven states to push for laws denying public services for illegal immigrants and Rep. Tancredo hints he may run for president to “build a fire” around the need for immigration reform. [6]

But reform means different things to different people.

To Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, reform means imposing new restrictions on asylum seekers, blocking states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and finishing a border fence near San Diego. “We will never have homeland security if we don't have border security,” Sensenbrenner said in March. [7] Sensenbrenner's tough, new Real ID bill, which has been endorsed by the Bush administration and passed by the House, appears close to passage in Congress.

To Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reform means enabling illegal immigrants to stay here legally because, he contends, the nation's economy depends on them. “As long as there are jobs to be had . . . that won't be done by Americans [illegal immigrants] are going to come and fill those jobs,” he said in April. [8]

Echoing McCain, President Bush has endorsed the creation of a “guest worker” program that would grant temporary legal status to illegal workers. “If there is a job opening which an American won't do . . . and there's a willing worker and a willing employer, that job ought to be filled on a legal basis, no matter where the person comes from,” Bush said after a meeting at his Texas ranch on March 23 with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. [9]

McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., are preparing a guest worker proposal — that would also allow illegal immigrants already here to apply for legal residence after six years of temporary legal status — but Bush hasn't said yet if he'd back it. Separate legislation proposed by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, would have applied this “earned legalization” idea to a half-million farmworkers now in the United States. Craig's proposal failed to win enough votes in April to survive.

At the state level, controversy over illegal immigration has helped build and destroy political careers. In California, for example, Schwarzenegger's promise to repeal legislation allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses helped him topple Democrat Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election for governor. Tensions are still running high outside the political arena.

Some activists go so far as to call immigration a product of organized crime. “The same people responsible for drug shipments from the south are also dealing in sex slaves and illegal labor and weapons,” claims William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, in Raleigh, N.C. “Our businesses should not be working with these people or encouraging these people. Some companies want more Third World labor on the territory of 'we the people' of the USA.”

But Juan Hernandez, former director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, says immigration opponents are simply appealing to primitive fears. “There are many jobs that would not be performed if undocumented people were not here. Why can't we come up with ways in which individuals who want to come from Mexico to the United States can get a quick permit, come up, do a job and go back?”

Immigration control has long been a hot-button issue, but the concern in previous years was largely about jobs and wages. In post-9/11 America, many observers view illegal immigration as a national security matter.

“The borders are out of control,” says T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing some 10,000 border officers. He claims the patrol catches no more than a third of illegal border crossers. “We have a situation where business is controlling our immigration policy rather than sound decisions that take into account all the factors, including homeland security.

While some may dismiss Bonner's concerns as overly alarmist, others point out that stepped-up border-security spending is not stopping the growing illegal immigration.

Over the past 12 years, billions of dollars have been spent on border-control measures, including walls and fences in urban areas, electronic sensors and more personnel. From 1993 to 2004, the federal government quintupled border enforcement spending to $3.8 billion and tripled the Border Patrol to more than 11,000 officers, according to Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. [10]

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner (no relation to T. J. Bonner) told lawmakers in March that a reorganization that combined the Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service into one agency under the Department of Homeland Security had improved deterrence. “This consolidation has significantly increased our ability to execute our anti-terrorism and traditional missions at our nation's borders more effectively than ever before,” he said.” [11]

Then why have illegal border crossings been increasing?

For one thing, the government has nearly stopped enforcing 1986 sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants. According to Mary Dougherty, an immigration statistician at the Homeland Security Department, in 2003 the agency levied only $9,300 in fines against employers. Dougherty cautioned that her data might be incomplete, but Time reported in 2004 that the number of fines imposed on employers dropped 99 percent during the 1990s from 1,063 in 1992 to 13 in 2002. [12]

Demetrios Papademetriou, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says that illegal immigration “maintains a standard of living for everyone in America that is, in a sense, beyond what we can really afford. When you continue to have low-wage workers streaming in, all products and services become cheaper. It has actually become a subsidy to every person in America. We have all become hooked.”

For instance, at least 50 percent of the nation's farmworkers are poorly paid illegal immigrants. Americans spend less on food than the citizens of any other industrialized country, the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service found. [13]

In the final analysis, the lack of enforcement benefits employers and hurts workers, says Ana Avendaño Denier, director of the AFL-CIO Immigrant Worker Program. “Employers have a very vulnerable population to whom they can pay lower wages, and because of business control over public policy, it is OK to have this class of workers that is fully exploitable.”

But problems here are unlikely to force illegal immigrants like Juan and María to return home.

“If it were just about us, yes,” she says. “But for the sake of our son, no. Here he has a chance to go to college. In Mexico, no matter how hard we work we don't have the possibility of paying for him to go to college. What we want is that he not suffer the humiliations we have had to suffer.”

As Congress, the states and citizens' groups debate the effects of illegal immigration, here are some of the key questions being asked:

Does illegal immigration hurt American workers?

Virtually every immigrant comes to the United States for one reason: to work.

About 96 percent of the 4.5 million illegal immigrant men now in the country are working, concludes Jeffrey Passel, a former U.S. Census Bureau demographer who is now senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center. All told, some 6 million immigrants — about 5 percent of the labor force — are in the country illegally immigrants.

Is the illegal work force large enough to hurt the job security of U.S. citizens?

Quite the contrary, argues John Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a lobbying group of 34 employers — including hotels, restaurants and building firms — that depend on immigrants. “I think back to the 1990s, a decade of economic growth,” he says. “We ended with 30-year lows in unemployment and a decade of record-setting immigration, legal and illegal. That tells me immigrants didn't displace millions of Americans; they helped employ Americans.”

Gay says low-paid workers help businesses thrive, allowing them to hire the native-born and legal immigrants for higher-paying jobs. In addition, immigrants are consumers themselves, so they boost the national economy.

But what helps business doesn't necessarily help Americans who share the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder with illegal immigrants, according to Jared Bernstein, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Living Standards Program, which has strong ties to organized labor. “There is solid evidence that a large presence of low-wage immigrants lowers wages of domestic workers in low-wage sectors,” Bernstein says. “Most economists should bristle at the notion that immigrants are filling jobs that native workers won't take. Maybe they won't take them because of low compensation and poor working conditions. In the absence of immigrants, the quality of some of those jobs probably would improve, and American workers probably would take them.”

Bernstein favors controlling the flow of immigrant workers, rather than trying to bar them altogether.

But Michael McGarry, a maintenance worker in Aspen, Colo., and spokesman for the controversial Minuteman Project, says illegals hurt the economy and that they all should be kept out. The group deployed more than 100 volunteers — some of them armed — to spot and report illegal immigrants along a stretch of the Mexican border in April. “People keep forgetting there is something called the law of supply and demand,” says McGarry, who represented the group in April when it recruited citizens to report illegal immigrants along the Mexican border in Arizona. “If you flood the country with workers, that is going to compete down wages and benefits and conditions.”

Harvard economist Borjas, whom many consider the leading expert on the economic effects of immigration, calculated that in the late 1990s immigration added a modest $10 billion to the economy — not a lot in a country with a national income in 1998 of about $8 trillion, Borjas wrote. [14]

The key, he argues, is not the overall gain but who won and who lost because of illegal immigration. [15] “Some businesses gain quite a bit and are not willing to give up the privilege — agriculture, the service industry and upper-middle-class Californians who hire nannies and gardeners. People who gain, gain an incredible amount.”

Borjas calculated that immigrants' work in 1998 helped those businesses gain roughly $160 billion, including the savings from the lower wages they were paying, plus their overall economic growth. [16] The figures don't distinguish between illegal and legal immigrants, but among low-skilled entrants to the United States, illegal immigrants are in the majority.

Economist Philip Martin, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations at the University of California-Davis, generally agrees with Borjas on the supply/demand side of the situation. “The economy would not come screeching to a halt,” Martin says, without illegal immigrants. At the same time, he acknowledges, they are “important to particular industries.”

A detailed 2002 study of illegal Latino immigrants in Chicago — where they made up 5 percent of the work force — supports Martin's analysis. Two-thirds of the workers held low-wage jobs including cleaning, packaging, child care, restaurant labor, grounds keeping and maintenance. Wages were depressed by an average of 22 percent for men and 36 percent for women. (Wages of undocumented Eastern European men and women were depressed by 20 percent.) “Attaining additional levels of education, having English proficiency and accumulating additional years of U.S. residency do not neutralize the negative wage effect of working without legal status,” the report said (emphasis in original). [17]

The AFL-CIO's Avendaño acknowledges that undocumented workers push wages down. “Mexican workers are walking into a situation where an employer, with a wink and a nod, will say, 'I'll pay you less than the minimum wage.' It is very important for the AFL-CIO to not be put in a position where we're choosing domestic workers over foreign workers. To us, the answer is a reasonable immigration system.”

Members of the Minutemen activist group search for illegal immigrants crossing into the United States along a stretch of the Mexican border near Douglas, Ariz., on April 4, 2005. Members of the controversial group said they wanted to aid the understaffed U.S. Border Patrol. AFP Photo/Nicholas Roberts

Stein, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) argues that “earned legalization” proposals like the planned McCain-Kennedy bill amount to schemes to provide employers with a ready supply of low-wage workers. Once immigrants get legal permanent residence, they can't be exploited as readily as illegal immigrants, Stein says, so the six-year legalization process keeps employers supplied with cheap labor.

“These are replacement workers for a very large swath of the American work force,” he says. “I say, stop trying to shift the costs for cheap labor onto the backs of hard-working families. They try to sell us all on the idea that low-cost, illegal labor cuts consumer costs, but there are enormous, incalculable costs imposed on society at large [by illegal immigrants] — public education, emergency medical care, housing assistance, housing itself and criminal justice costs.”

Are tougher immigration controls needed to protect national security?

“We have some people who are coming in to kill you and your children and your grandchildren,” says Rep. Tancredo, who has made immigration control his political mission. “Anyone seeking to come into this country without getting a lot of attention drawn to him would naturally choose the borders and come in under the radar screen along with thousands and thousands and thousands of others.”

Tancredo worries about men like Mohamed and Mahmud Abouhalima, who were convicted for their roles in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The two Middle Eastern terrorists illegally took advantage of one of two immigration-reform programs to acquire “green cards” (which signify legal permanent resident status) under the 1986 Special Agricultural Workers Program for farmworkers.

The brothers obtained the green cards through flaws in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) inspection system, according to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission). The agency's “inability to adjudicate applications quickly or with adequate security checks made it easier for terrorists to wrongfully enter and remain in the United States throughout the 1990s.” [18]

In a sense, that failure followed logically from Justice Department policy. The report continues, “Attorney General [Janet] Reno and her deputies, along with Congress, made their highest priorities shoring up the Southwest border to prevent the migration of illegal aliens and selectively upgrading technology systems,” the 9/11 commission staff concluded. [19] (The INS was then part of the Justice Department.)

Unlike immigrants trekking across the desert, the 19 9/11 terrorist attackers, including 15 Saudis and a citizen of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), flew into the United States on airliners, their passports stamped with legally obtained student or tourist visas. [20]

To be sure, one airport immigration inspector stopped a member of the 9/11 attack team from entering the United States. Mohammed al Kahtani of Saudi Arabia was turned around at Orlando International Airport because he had a one-way ticket, little money, couldn't speak much English and couldn't explain the reason he was visiting. “The inspector relied on intuitive experience . . . more than he relied on any objective factor that could be detected by 'scores' or a machine,” the commission observed.

A group of 130 Mexicans who entered the United States illegally board a charter flight in Tucson, Ariz., to Mexico City on July 12, 2004. The flight is part of a “voluntary repatriation” program run jointly by the U.S. and Mexican governments. Getty Images/Gary Williams

As a result, the commission said: “We advocate a system for screening, not categorical profiling. A screening system looks for particular, identifiable suspects or indicators of risk.” [21]

Sensenbrenner says the driver's-license prohibition in his Real ID bill would complicate life for terrorists who did manage to slip in. “If you read the 9/11 report, they highlight how al Qaeda studied document fraud and other vulnerabilities in the system,” said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee. “They undertook the risk and effort to get valid U.S. driver's licenses and state I.D. cards . . . because they allow you to fit in.” [22]

Immigrant-rights advocates argue, however, that Sensenbrenner's driver's-license provisions would complicate the lives of citizens and legal residents without damaging terrorists' capabilities.

Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says the bill “is not going to do anything to deter people coming to this country.” Instead, he argues, “the provisions . . . will make it much more complicated and burdensome for every American to get their first driver's licenses or renewals. They will not only have to prove they are citizens of a particular state, they will have to provide certified birth certificates; you'll have to go to a state birth certification agency. Some states don't have them.”

Although terrorists have a track record for finding holes in the border-control system, border enforcement isn't actually targeting terrorists, says Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigrant-defense organization. “A border wall is not going to deter terrorists,” she argues. What stepped-up enforcement is achieving, she says, is “ongoing harassment” of people on the U.S. side of the border — particularly those whose Latin features identify them as possible foreigners.

Border Patrol union President Bonner acknowledges that most illegal immigrants are only looking for jobs. But he suggests that concentrating patrol forces on the 2,000-mile Southwest border is leaving the 3,145-mile Canadian border relatively unprotected. Some 9,000 officers are assigned to the Mexican border, he says, compared with only about 1,000 on the Canadian line. “We'll get a call from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and they'll say — 'Sixty Koreans landed here, and they're heading your way.' Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don't.”

The Mexican and Canadian borders are indeed vulnerable, Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute acknowledges. But a 2003 institute report concludes that immigration policy is not an effective anti-terrorism tool. A report he co-authored concluded: “The government's major successes in apprehending terrorists have not come from post-Sept. 11 immigration initiatives but from other efforts, such as international intelligence activities, law enforcement cooperation and information provided by arrests made abroad.” [23]

Should illegal immigrants in the United States be allowed to acquire legal status?

Legalization is one of the major dividing lines between illegal-immigration-control forces and employers and other immigrants'-rights advocates.

The guest worker proposal sponsored by Sens. McCain and Kennedy would allow foreigners to take jobs in the United States for a specified period, perhaps three years. Foreigners already here illegally also would be able to join the program and then apply for permanent residence after six years. Although President Bush generally supports the temporary worker portion of the proposal, he has not said whether he favors legalization.

Backers of the plan reject the term “amnesty,” which implies a mass pardon for those covered by the proposal. “For security reasons, for human-rights reasons and for labor reasons, there is a vested interest in legalizing or regularizing the status of individuals,” says a member of McCain's staff. “Sen. McCain doesn't believe it's possible to round up everyone and send them home. [But] it can't be an amnesty. With high fines, background checks [for criminal violations] and through the temporary-worker program, people will be proving their reliability.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, is expected to introduce the similar but more limited Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. It seeks to resolve a contradiction in immigration policy that affects high school students who are in the country illegally, typically because their parents brought them as children. By law, they are required to attend school, and every year an estimated 65,000 graduate from high school.

After graduation, the legal environment changes dramatically. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act discourages states from providing illegal immigrants with in-state tuition and other benefits at public colleges and universities. Even in the 15 states that do allow such students to pay resident tuition, they can't get hired legally after they graduate. The DREAM Act would not only allow all states to offer in-state tuition to illegal residents but also offer young students temporary residency as well as a shot at permanent legal status if they graduate or complete military service.

Supporters say the bill would help award-winning students like Julieta Garibay. She is a nursing graduate in Texas, where she paid in-state tuition — but now her illegal status bars her from working. “We have studied and want to be productive, but we have no prospects,” she said. [24]

But illegal means illegal, opponents of the DREAM Act argue. “We can't hold taxpayers accountable to providing discounted education to people in this country illegally,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said. [25]

Immigration-control activists make essentially the same argument about the “earned legalization” approach. “The whole supposed guest worker program is really an amnesty,” says McGarry, of the Minuteman Project. “This would be a disaster. An amnesty, by definition, is something the government forgives. Breaking into the country is a crime.”

The undocumented immigrants are already here, their defenders say. And having illegal immigrants in the work force allows employers to pay them less than they'd be able to earn as legal residents. Such exploitation makes legalization “so crucial,” says the AFL-CIO's Avendaño.

She says a December 2004 decision by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court proves that an unfair, two-tiered labor system is acquiring legal status. The court ruled an illegal immigrant who was injured while working on a construction site was entitled to lost wages — but valued only at what he would have earned in his home country. “It is our view that plaintiff, as an admitted undocumented alien, is not entitled to recover lost earnings damages based on the wages he might have earned illegally in the United States. . . . [W]e limited plaintiff's recovery for lost earnings to the wages he would have been able to earn in his home country.” [26]

In effect, Avendaño says, the ruling “legitimizes Third World labor conditions” in the United States.

Immigration-control advocates say the solution lies in keeping out the bulk of illegal immigrants trying to enter while cracking down on businesses that employ illegal workers. “If you enforce the law against employers,” Rep. Tancredo says, “people who cannot get employment will return” to their home countries. “They will return by the millions.”

That way, Tancredo says, a mass roundup would not be required.

Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute favors a variant of the Tancredo approach that avoids its punitive aspects. Illegal immigrants “ought to have labor protection,” he says. “That's not contradictory to the notion that illegals shouldn't be here. Employers should be held accountable for labor standards for all employees. The beauty part of erasing employer advantage is that it dampens the incentive for illegal flows.”

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Earlier Waves

The United States was created as a nation of immigrants who left Europe for political, religious and economic reasons. After independence, the new nation maintained an open-door immigration policy for 100 years. Two great waves of immigrants — in the mid-1800s and the late 19th and early 20th centuries — drove the nation's westward expansion and built its cities and its industrial base. [27]

But while the Statue of Liberty says America accepts the world's “tired . . . poor . . . huddled masses,” Americans themselves vacillate between welcoming immigrants and resenting them — even those who arrive legally. For both legal and illegal immigrants, America's actions have been inconsistent and often racist.

In the 19th century, thousands of Chinese laborers were brought here to build the railroads and then were excluded — via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — in a wave of anti-Chinese hysteria. Other Asian groups were restricted when legislation in 1917 created “barred zones” for Asian immigrants. [28]

The racist undertones of U.S. immigration policy were by no means reserved for Asians. Describing Italian and Irish immigrants as “wretched beings,” The New York Times on May 15, 1880, editorialized: “There is a limit to our powers of assimilation, and when it is exceeded the country suffers from something very like indigestion.”

Nevertheless, from 1880 to 1920, the country admitted more than 23 million immigrants — first from Northern and then from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1890, Census Bureau Director Francis Walker said the country was being overrun by “less desirable” newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe, whom he called “beaten men from beaten races.”

In the 1920s, public concern about the nation's changing ethnic makeup prompted Congress to establish a national-origins quota system. Laws in 1921, 1924 and 1929 capped overall immigration and limited influxes from certain areas based on the share of the U.S. population with similar ancestry, effectively excluding Asians and Southern Europeans.

But the quotas only swelled the ranks of illegal immigrants — particularly Mexicans, who only needed to wade across the Rio Grande. To stem the flow, the United States in 1924 created the U.S. Border Patrol, the enforcement arm of the INS, to guard the 6,000 miles of U.S. land bordering Canada and Mexico.

During the early 1940s the United States relaxed its immigration policies, largely for economic and political reasons. The Chinese exclusion laws were repealed in 1943, after China became a wartime ally against Japan in 1941. And in 1942 — partly to relieve wartime labor shortages and partly to legalize and control the flow of Mexican agricultural workers into the country — the United States began the Bracero (Spanish for “laborer”) guest worker program, which allowed temporary workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to pick crops in Western states.

After the war, Congress decided to codify the scores of immigration laws that had evolved over the years. The landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, retained a basic quota system that favored immigrants from Northern Europe — especially the skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens among them. At the same time, it exempted immigrants from the Western Hemisphere from the quota system — except for the black residents of European colonies in the Caribbean.

Mass Deportation

The 1952 law also attempted to address the newly acknowledged reality of Mexican workers who crossed the border illegally. Border Patrol agents were given more power to search for illegal immigrants and a bigger territory in which to operate.

“Before 1944, the illegal traffic on the Mexican border . . . was never overwhelming,” the President's Commission on Migratory Labor noted in 1951, but in the past seven years, “the wetback traffic has reached entirely new levels. . . . [I]t is virtually an invasion.” [29]

In a desperate attempt to reverse the tide, the Border Patrol in 1954 launched “Operation Wetback,” transferring nearly 500 INS officers from the Canadian perimeter and U.S. cities to join the 250 agents policing the U.S.-Mexican border and factories and farms. More than 1 million undocumented Mexican migrants were deported.

Although the action enjoyed popular support and bolstered the prestige — and budget — of the INS, it exposed an inherent contradiction in U.S. immigration policy. The 1952 law contained a gaping loophole — the Texas Proviso — a blatant concession to Texas agricultural interests that relied on cheap labor from Mexico.

“The Texas Proviso said companies or farms could knowingly hire illegal immigrants, but they couldn't harbor them,” said Lawrence Fuchs, former executive director of the U.S. Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. “It was a duplicitous policy. We never really intended to prevent illegals from coming.”

Immigration Reform

The foundation of today's immigration system dates back to 1965, when Congress overhauled the immigration rules. From the 1920s to the 1960s, immigration had been markedly reduced, thanks largely to the effects of the Great Depression, World War II and the quota system established in the 1920s.

From 1930 to 1950, for instance, fewer than 4 million newcomers arrived — more than a 50 percent drop from the high immigration rates of the early 20th century. The heated debates that had accompanied the earlier waves of immigration faded. “Immigration didn't even really exist as a big issue until 1965 because we just weren't letting that many people in,” said Peter Brimelow, author of the 1995 bestseller Alien Nation.

That all changed in 1965, when Congress scrapped the national-origin quotas in favor of immigration limits for major regions of the world and gave preference to immigrants with close relatives living in the United States. The 1965 amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act capped annual immigration at 290,000 — 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere. By giving priority to family reunification as a basis for admission, the amendments repaired “a deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared at the time.

However, the law also dramatically changed the immigration landscape. Most newcomers now hailed from the developing world — about half from Latin America. While nearly 70 percent of immigrants had come from Europe or Canada in the 1950s, by the 1980s that figure had dropped to about 14 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage coming from Asia, Central America and the Caribbean jumped from about 30 percent in the 1950s to 75 percent during the '70s.

The government had terminated the Bracero program in December 1964, bowing to pressure from unions and exposés of the appalling conditions under which the braceros were living and working. But after having allowed millions of temporary Mexican laborers into the country legally for years, the government found that it was now impossible to turn off the spigot. Despite beefed-up Border Patrol efforts, the number of illegal migrants apprehended at the border jumped from fewer than 100,000 in 1965 to more than 1.2 million by 1985.

In 1978 the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy concluded that illegal immigration was the most pressing problem facing immigration authorities, a perception shared by the general public. [30] The number of border apprehensions peaked in 1986 at 1.7 million, driven in part by a deepening economic crisis in Mexico. Some felt the decade-long increase in illegal immigration was particularly unfair to the tens of thousands of legal petitioners waiting for years to obtain entry visas.

“The simple truth is that we've lost control of our own borders,” declared President Ronald Reagan, “and no nation can do that and survive.” [31]

In the mid-1980s, a movement emerged to fix the illegal immigration problem. Interestingly, the debate on Capitol Hill was marked by bipartisan alliances described by Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., as “the goofiest ideological-bedfellow activity I've ever seen.” [32] Conservative anti-immigration think tanks teamed up with liberal labor unions and environmentalists favoring tighter restrictions on immigration. Pro-growth and business groups joined forces with longtime adversaries in the Hispanic and civil rights communities to oppose the legislation.

After several false starts, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in October 1986 — the most sweeping revision of U.S. immigration policy in more than two decades. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, IRCA granted a general amnesty to all undocumented aliens who were in the United States before 1982 and imposed monetary sanctions — or even prison — against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers for the first time. The law also included a commitment to beef up enforcement along the Mexican border.

IRCA allowed 3.1 million undocumented aliens to obtain legal status. Within two years, the number of would-be immigrants detained at the border each year fell from a peak of more than 1.7 million in 1986 to fewer than 900,000 in 1989.

“Once word spreads along the border that there are no jobs for illegals in the U.S., the magnet no longer exists,” INS Commissioner Alan Nelson said in 1985. But that assessment was premature.

Political Asylum

Nowadays, illegal migrants come not only from neighboring countries but also from the world's far corners. Homeland Security Department officials have seized ships off the U.S. East and West coasts loaded with would-be illegal Chinese immigrants. Hundreds of others arrive on airplanes with temporary visas and simply stay past their visa-expiration dates.

As it is policing the borders, the department must also determine whether those immigrants seeking political asylum are truly escaping persecution or are merely seeking greener economic pastures. Historically, U.S. immigration law has been more receptive to political refugees if they come from communist countries.

“It used to be clear,” said Doris Meissner, former INS commissioner. “Mexicans were economic, Cubans and Vietnamese were political. That changed when the Haitian boat people started coming in the 1970s. Their reasons for leaving were both political and economic.” [33]

Unlike Cuban refugees arriving on boats — who are automatically admitted under the 1966 “Cuban Adjustment Act” — Haitian “boat people” in the 1970s were routinely imprisoned while their applications were being processed. In 1981, the U.S. government began intercepting Haitians' boats on the high seas and towing them back to Haiti. That practice continues. As for Cubans, the Clinton administration established a “wet foot/dry foot” policy — still in effect — that sends fleeing Cubans who don't actually touch U.S. soil back to Cuba; those who make a case for “credible fear of persecution” in Cuba are sent on to third countries.

Complicating the asylum picture, in the 1980s growing numbers of Central Americans began fleeing non-communist regimes in war-torn countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. But their chances of obtaining political asylum were slim, so many came in illegally.

Human rights advocates argued that the inconsistencies in the treatment of Central American and Haitian refugees amounted to racial and political discrimination. From 1981 through 1986, the federal government deported nearly 18,000 Salvadorans while granting permanent-resident status to 598. [34]During the same period, half of the immigrants from Poland — then under communist rule — were granted asylum.

An immigrant works on new homes being built in Homestead, Fla., on May 7, 2004. An estimated 337,000 undocumented immigrants live in Florida, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Getty Images/Joe Raedle

“Cubans and Poles were accepted without significant questioning,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, an immigration expert at the University of Houston, “Central Americans were grilled and usually not accepted, despite the fact that lives were endangered. [Polish President] Lech Walesa would never have survived in Guatemala.”

Responding to the unequal treatment, churches and some U.S. communities — Berkeley, Los Angeles, Chicago and others — began offering sanctuary to Central American refugees. By 1985, the sanctuary movement had spread to more than 200 parishes of all denominations. In 1985 several leaders of the movement were tried for being part of an “alien-smuggling conspiracy.”

Four years later, the sanctuary movement was vindicated when the U.S. government (in settling a lawsuit filed by a coalition of religious and refugee organizations) agreed to reconsider the cases of tens of thousands of Central Americans previously rejected for political asylum. A 1990 immigration law created a new “temporary protected status” shielding from immediate deportation people whose countries were torn by war or environmental disaster. The provision was written with Central Americans in mind. Eventually, so many cases clogged the system that in 1997 Congress passed the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act allowing thousands of Central Americans to bypass the backlogged asylum system and apply directly for permanent legal residence.

But the 1990 law also made broader changes. It increased the number of foreigners allowed to enter the United States each year from 500,000 to 700,000 (dropping to 675,000 in 1995). More important, it nearly tripled the annual quota for skilled professionals from 55,000 to 144,000. To alter the 1965 law's preference for Latin American and Asian immigrants, it set new quotas for countries seen as having been unfairly treated by the earlier law, with newcomers from Europe and skilled workers receiving a greater share of entry visas.

Changes in 1996

In the 1990s nearly 10 million newcomers arrived on U.S. shores, the largest influx ever — with most still coming from Latin America and Asia.

President Bill Clinton realized early in his presidency that the so-called “amnesty” program enacted in 1986 had not solved the illegal-immigration problem. And in the Border States, concern was growing that undocumented immigrants were costing U.S. taxpayers too much in social, health and educational services. On Nov. 8. 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187 denying illegal immigrants public education or non-essential public-health services. Immigrants'-rights organizations immediately challenged the law, which a court later ruled was mostly unconstitutional. But the proposition's passage had alerted politicians to the intensity of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment. [35]

House Republicans immediately included a proposal to bar welfare benefits for legal immigrants in its “Contract with America,” and in 1995, after the GOP won control of the House, Congress took another stab at reforming the rules for both legal and illegal immigration. But business groups blocked efforts to reduce legal immigration, so the new law primarily focused on curbing illegal immigration.

The final legislation, which cleared Congress on Sept. 30, nearly doubled the size of the Border Patrol and provided 600 new INS investigators. It appropriated $12 million for new border-control devices, including motion sensors, set tougher standards for applying for political asylum and made it easier to expel foreigners with fake documents or none at all. [36] The law also severely limited — and in many cases completely eliminated — non-citizens' ability to challenge INS decisions in court. [37]

But the new law did not force authorities to crack down on businesses that employed illegal immigrants even though there was wide agreement such a crackdown was vital. As the Commission on Immigration Reform had said in 1994, the centerpiece of any effort to stop illegal entrants should be to “turn off the jobs magnet that attracts them.”

By 1999, however, the INS had stopped raiding work sites to round up illegal immigrant workers and was focusing on foreign criminals, immigrant-smugglers and document fraud. As for cracking down on employers, an agency district director told The Washington Post, “We're out of that business.” The idea that employers could be persuaded not to hire illegal workers “is a fairy tale.” [38]

Terrorism and Immigrants

The debate over immigration heated up dramatically after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although none of the terrorists were immigrants, all were foreigners. And some had received help in obtaining housing and driver's licenses from members of Middle Eastern immigrant communities. [39]

Nevertheless, there were no indications that Middle Eastern immigrants in general had anything to do with the attacks or with terrorism. But in the days and weeks following the attacks, federal agents rounded up more than 1,200 Middle Easterners on suspicion of breaking immigration laws, being material witnesses to terrorism or supporting the enemy. By August 2002, most had been released or deported. [40]

Nevertheless, a senior Justice Department official said the jailings had “incapacitated and disrupted some ongoing terrorist plans.” [41]

Whatever the effects on terrorism, there is no question that 9/11 and the government response to the attacks put a dent in legal immigration. In fiscal 2002-2003 — the latest period for which statistics are available — the number of people granted legal permanent residence (green cards) fell by 34 percent; 28,000 people were granted political asylum, 59 percent fewer than were granted asylum in fiscal 2000-2001. [42]

But the growth of illegal immigration under way before 9/11 continued afterward, with 57 percent of the illegal immigrants coming from Mexico. [43]

Due to the family-reunification provision in immigration law, Mexico is also the leading country of origin for legal immigrants — with 116,000 of the 705,827 legal immigrants in fiscal 2002-2003 coming from Mexico. [44] No Middle Eastern or predominantly Muslim countries have high numbers of legal immigrants, although Pakistan was 13th among the top 15 countries of origin for legal immigrants in 1998. [45]

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Current Situation

Hardliners Score

In Congress, immigration hardliners are on a roll. In April, Rep. Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans demanded that the Senate take up his driver's license/asylum/border fence legislation in a “must-pass” supplemental spending bill. Senators from both parties were reluctant to tackle immigration in that inflexible context. But Sensenbrenner had already overcome Democratic opposition in the House and wasn't backing down.

“A senator came into my office and said, 'I want to filibuster this,' and I said, 'Get real,'” Senate Minority Leader Reid, told reporters on April 25. [46]

Even the Senate's senior Republican wasn't happy about having to take up immigration as part of a must-pass spending bill. Two weeks before Reid told his anecdote, his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he would prefer to “address immigration in the future.” Twelve senators from both parties had formally asked Frist to keep immigration out of the supplemental-funding legislation. [47]

Sensenbrenner not only held his own against other legislators but also secured White House endorsement. “This important legislation will strengthen the ability of the United States to protect against terrorist entry into and activities within the United States,” Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in an April 25 letter to Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., House Appropriations Committee chairman.

Lobbyists and congressional staffers following the immigration debate saw Bush's backing as a bid to obtain support from immigration hardliners for future guest worker legislation, an analysis also reported in The New York Times. [48] Sensenbrenner's office didn't return a call seeking comment about the matter.

With enactment of Sensenbrenner's proposal virtually certain, his get-tough approach was for the moment the only game in town. Sens. McCain and Kennedy had not yet introduced their long-announced guest worker and “earned legalization” bill. A bill by Idaho's Sen. Craig and Kennedy to create a jobs program for foreign farm workers didn't survive as an amendment to the Senate version of the supplemental.

A climate in which legislators were feeling heat from constituents about security was also evident in fact-finding hearings. “You can't believe the numbers of times people in Oklahoma come up to me and say, 'When are we going to control the border?'” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said at hearing of the Immigration and Terrorism subcommittees on April 28. He added, “It's really not about illegal immigration. It's really about the risk of terrorism.”

Coburn asked Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, “Are people coming here illegally because we don't have the resources with which to control the border?”

“I think that is a correct statement. Yes, sir,” Aguilar replied.

Another yet-to-appear immigration bill was Hatch's DREAM Act, which a press aide says Hatch will re-introduce; in the 2003-2004 Congress it didn't reach the full Senate for a vote.

The legislation would enable youths with no criminal record to seek “conditional” legal residency, which would allow them to attend postsecondary school or join the military. After graduation or honorable discharge, the student could apply for a green card.

Currently, eight states, California and New York among them, explicitly disregard immigration status in granting in-state tuition. In the rest of the country, though, illegal immigrants need not apply.

Hatch's bill — if he introduces it — aims to benefit illegal immigrants whom even conservatives like himself can admire. In a political environment in which get-tough approaches are picking up steam, how far support for the DREAM Act would extend seemed open to question.

Given the atmosphere, at least one immigrant-rights advocate reported that others on her side have concluded that “earned legalization” had to be accompanied by tougher border security to have any chance at all in Congress.

“Any reform worthy of the name must restore the public's confidence in the immigration system, and . . . the only way to do that is by regaining control of our borders,” Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote. “The answer to the immigration problem must be a blend: sensible laws, strictly enforced.” [49]

State Debate

The hard-line approach is no less evident at the state level. In Arkansas, the fate of legislation consistent with a DREAM Act-approach toward illegal immigrants in school was one indication of prevailing opinion. In April, the state Senate rejected legislation that would have made illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition. The state attorney general had ruled that the bill might have violated the 1996 immigration law. Similar bills are pending in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon and Nebraska.

Arizona voters last year approved Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship before voting. The new law also requires the state and local governments to check the immigration status of anyone applying for unspecified “public benefits” and to report any illegal immigrants who apply. [50]

Proponents said the law's “benefits” provision was designed to plug a loophole that enabled illegal immigrants to obtain welfare because of holes in the system. “Such benefits are an incentive for illegal aliens to settle in Arizona and hide from federal authorities,” state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said. [51]

But the new law didn't actually prohibit anything that wasn't already forbidden, opponents said. Ray Ybarra, who was observing the Minuteman Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, told a reporter that the law simply restated existing prohibitions on illegal immigrants voting or getting welfare. He called the new law an outgrowth of “fear and misunderstanding.” [52]

The new law has led immigration-control forces to propose legislation that would bar illegal immigrants from state colleges, adult-education classes and utility and child-care assistance. The proposed legislation, which was under consideration in early May, set off a new round of debate. Arizonans shouldn't have to subsidize services for people in the country illegally, argued state Rep. Tom Boone, R-Glendale, the bill's sponsor. Opponents countered that Hispanic citizens would have to suffer extra scrutiny simply because of their appearance. [53]

A Democratic opponent tried to add sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. Republicans voted that down on the first attempt.

Perhaps because Arizona is on the border and its new law passed by referendum, the legislation received more national attention than a similar measure enacted in Virginia this year.

As in Arizona, the Virginia law requires anyone applying for non-emergency public benefits — such as Medicaid and welfare — to be a legal U.S. resident. Democratic Gov. Mark Warner downplayed the measure's effects, even as he signed it into law, saying it restated federal prohibitions against illegal immigrants receiving some public benefits. [54]

Arizona's new law is a model for immigration-control forces in other states. In Colorado, organizations that want to cut back illegal immigrants' access to state services are planning to follow the Arizona pattern by bringing the proposal before voters in a referendum since the state legislature didn't act on the idea. But among voters at large, organizers of the referendum drive predict they'll have no trouble getting more than the 70,000 signatures needed to put the proposal on the 2006 election ballot. [55]

The legislation is “playing to the worst fears and instincts of people,” said Democratic state Rep. Terrence Carroll, an opponent. “It has a very good chance of passing.” [56]

In North Carolina, meanwhile, five proposals are designed to crack down on illegal immigration by denying driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and forcing employers who hire them to cover some of their medical expenses. Immigration is a recent phenomenon in the state, and a big one. An estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants have settled in North Carolina — a 43 percent increase from 2000 to 2004 — driven by demand from farmers, hotels and construction companies. [57]

Assimilation Debate

In small communities experiencing unprecedented waves of new immigrants, many residents feel that the overwhelming numbers of Latinos showing up in their towns are changing American culture. They say that Mexican immigrants — perhaps because they need only walk across the border to return home — stick to themselves and refuse to learn English or to assimilate as readily as previous waves of immigrants.

“They didn't want to socialize with anybody,” said D.A. King, describing the Mexicans who moved into a house across the street from his Marietta, Ga., home. “They filled their house full of people. At one time, there were 18 people living in this home.” [58]

Harvard historian Samuel Huntington, in his controversial new book Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity, worries that the sheer number of Latino immigrants has created a minority with little incentive to assimilate, potentially creating an America with a split identity.

“Continuation of this large immigration [without improved assimilation] could divide the United States into a country of two languages and two cultures,” writes Huntington, who heads the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. “Demographically, socially and culturally, the reconquista (reconquest) of the Southwestern United States by Mexican immigrants is well under way. Hispanic leaders are actively seeking to transform the United States into a bilingual society.” [59]

But many reject Huntington's argument. “The same thing was said about African-Americans . . . about the Irish,” a Georgia restaurant owner, who asked not to be identified, told CNN. “It's the same old song and over time it's proved to be a bunch of bologna. I believe these people are just like any other newcomers to this country. They can immigrate in and they're doing a great job here. And why should they be any different?” [60]

Those like Huntington and King say they are not against legal immigrants but oppose unchecked illegal immigration. King, in particular, is so furious with the government's refusal to enforce immigration laws against what he sees as the “invasion and the colonization of my country and my state and my city” that he founded the Marietta, Ga.-based American Resistance Foundation, which pushes for stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

Whenever he calls the INS to report seeing dozens of undocumented workers milling on local street corners waiting for employers seeking day laborers, he says, “I have never gotten through to a person, and I've never gotten a return phone call.” [61]

“To whom does an American citizen turn when his government will not protect him from the Third World?” King asks. “What do we do now?”

Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the INS, had a mixed message in addressing King's frustration.

“I would certainly agree with him that we have to enforce our law, and it's an important part of my responsibilities,” Hutchinson told CNN last October. “But whenever you look at the family that is being very productive and has a great family life contributing to American society, but in fact they came here illegally, I don't think you could excuse the illegal behavior. But you also recognize they're not terrorists. They're contributing to our society. We understand the humanitarian reasons that brought them here.” [62]

Hutchinson said the dilemma for U.S. officials is particularly difficult when those illegal immigrants have had children born here, who are now U.S. citizens. “Do you jerk the parents up and send them back to their home country and leave the two children here that are U.S. citizens?

“Those are the problems that we're dealing with every day. Yes, we certainly want to enforce the law, but we have to recognize we also are a compassionate country that deals with a real human side as well.”


Political asylum accounts for few immigrants but plays an outsized role in the immigration debate. Most legal immigrants settle in the United States because the government decides to allow them in, and illegal immigrants come because they can. But asylum-seekers are granted refuge because the law requires it — not just federal law but international humanitarian law as well. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, which was updated in 1967, says that no one fleeing political, racial or religious persecution can be returned involuntarily to a country where he or she is in danger. [63]

However, the United States and all other countries that grant asylum can determine who qualifies for that protection and who doesn't. “Irresponsible judges have made asylum laws vulnerable to fraud and abuse,” Rep. Sensenbrenner said in promoting his “Real ID” bill, which would limit the right to asylum by raising the standard for granting asylum and allowing judges to take an applicant's demeanor into account.

“We will ensure that terrorists like Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, no longer receive a free pass to move around America's communities when they show up at our gates claiming asylum,” Sensenbrenner said. [64]

Civil liberties advocates say terrorists today could not breeze through an immigration inspection by demanding asylum because the 1996 immigration overhaul tightened after Yousef and others abused it. Above all, the 1996 immigration act authorized immigration inspectors to refuse entry to foreigners without passports, or with illegally obtained travel documents. [65]

In addition, says Erin Corcoran, a Washington-based lawyer in the asylum-rights program of Human Rights First (formerly, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), asylum seekers now get their fingerprints and photos checked at each stage in the process. “Real ID just heightens the burden of proof that a genuine applicant must meet,” Corcoran says, arguing that terrorists are more than capable of adjusting to the new security environment. “A terrorist would have everything in order.”

The 1996 law tightened up the process in other ways as well. If a foreigner asks for asylum when trying to enter the United States, he must get a so-called “credible fear interview.” If an asylum officer concludes that a “significant possibility” exists for the foreigner to win asylum, a judge might rule that the foreigner shouldn't be deported. If the asylum officer decides that foreigners haven't met the “credible fear” standard, they are held and then deported. But those who do meet the standard may be released while they await hearings on their asylum claims. [66]

And even getting to the first step of the asylum process is difficult. In fiscal 1999 through 2003, asylum was requested by 812,324 foreigners, but only 35,566 were granted credible fear interviews. [67] Of the 36,799 asylum applicants whose cases were decided during the same period, 5,891 were granted asylum or allowed to remain in the United States under the international Convention Against Torture; 19,722 applicants were ordered deported, and 1,950 withdrew their applications. Another 2,528 were allowed to become legal permanent residents. [68]

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Focus on Mexico

Immigration predictions have a way of turning out wrong. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act didn't control illegal immigration. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement didn't create enough jobs in Mexico to keep Mexicans from migrating. The 1996 Immigration Enforcement Improvement Act didn't lessen the flow of illegal immigrants. Cracking down on illegal crossings in big cities like San Diego and El Paso only funneled migrants into the deadly desert of northern Mexico. And announced measures to step up border enforcement didn't stop illegals from coming in — both before and after 9/11 — although legal immigration did drop.

Faced with such a track record, many immigration experts say legislation and law enforcement may not be the best ways to change immigration patterns, especially where illegal immigration is concerned.

“The absence of consensus on alternatives locks in the current policy mix, under which unauthorized immigrants bear most of the costs and risks of 'control' while benefits flow impressively to employers and consumers,” Cornelius of the University of California has concluded. “Promised future experiments with guest worker programs, highly secure ID cards for verifying employment eligibility and new technologies for electronic border control are unlikely to change this basic dynamic. [69]

“The back door to undocumented immigration to the United States is essentially wide open,” he said. “And it is likely to remain wide open unless something systematic and serious is done to reduce the demand for the labor.” [70]

Steven Camarota, research director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher immigration controls, agrees. “There is a fundamental political stalemate,” he says. “You have a divide in the country between public opinion and elite opinion. Elite opinion is strong enough to make sure that the law doesn't get enforced but is not strong enough to repeal the law. Public opinion is strong enough to ensure that the law doesn't get repealed but not strong enough to get the law enforced. For most politicians a continuation of the status quo doesn't have a huge political downside.”

Nevertheless, Stein of FAIR argues that Beltway insiders are only slowly catching on to what's happening in the country at large. “The issue is building very rapidly in terms of public frustration,” he says. “You talk to [congressional] representatives, they'll tell you that you go to town meeting and talk about the budget or one of the issues that the party wants to talk about, and the discussion will last five minutes. Mention immigration and two hours later you're still on it. It's on fire out there.”

Developments in Mexico may be as important to the future of U.S. immigration policy as anything that Washington politicians do, says Martin, at the University of California. If the populist mayor of Mexico City, Manuel López Obrador, wins the presidency of Mexico in 2006, he says, the mutual distrust between the international business community and left-leaning politicians who favor government intervention in the economy could play a key role in immigration to the United States: “That will slow down foreign investment,” making it likely that illegal immigration would continue at a high level, he says.

Martin doubts there is much potential for political violence and destabilization in Mexico. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Mexico City in April to protest a move to prosecute López Obrador for a minor legal violation, raising the specter of serious political conflict. [71] If that happens, immigration could be seen as a political — as well an economic — safety valve.

“That may be the best rationale for letting illegal immigration be what it is,” says Borjas of Harvard, who otherwise opposes that trend. “I could see the point to that.”

With little likelihood of substantial change to the immigration picture, virtually all observers agree that there is one potential exception: a major terrorist act committed in the United States by an illegal border-crosser. In that event, Borjas says, “Who knows what the outcome would be?”

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[1] Quoted in “CNN Presents: Immigrant Nation: Divided Country,” Oct. 17, 2004.

[2] Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population,” March 21, 2005, Pew Hispanic Center,

[3] Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2004-2005, p. 8;; Office of Policy and Planning, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigration Population Residing in The United States: 1990 to 2000,”; Steven A. Camarota, “Economy Slowed, But Immigration Didn't: The Foreign-Born Population 2000-2004,” Center for Immigration Studies, November 2004,

[4] Quoted in David Kelly, “Illegal Immigration Fears Have Spread; Populist calls for tougher enforcement are being heard beyond the border states,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Seth Hettena, “Congressmen call on Senate to pass bill to fortify border fence,” The Associated Press, March 29, 2005.

[8] PR Newswire, “Senator John McCain Surprises U.S. Constitutional Development Class at Annapolis . . . ,” April 21, 2005.

[9] “President Meets with President Fox and Prime Minister Martin,” White House, March 23, 2005,

[10] Wayne Cornelius, “Controlling 'Unwanted' Immigration: Lessons from the United States, 1993-2004,” Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego, December 2004, p. 5,

[11] Statement, March 15, 2005;

[12] Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, “Who Left the Door Open,” Time, Sept. 20, 2004, p. 51.

[13] Birgit Meade, unpublished analysis, Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

[14] George J. Borjas, Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy (1999), pp. 87-104.

[15] Ibid, pp. 103-104.

[16] Ibid, pp. 90-91.

[17] Chirag Mehta et al., “Chicago's Undocumented Immigrants: An Analysis of Wages, Working Conditions, and Economic Contributions,” February 2002,

[18] “Immigration and Border Security Evolve, 1993 to 2001,” Chapter 4 in “Staff Monograph on 9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The 9/11 Commission Report (2004), pp. 248, 387.

[22] T. R. Reid and Darryl Fears, “Driver's License Curtailed as Identification,” The Washington Post, April 17, 2005, p. A3.

[23] Muzaffar A. Chishti et al., “America's Challenge: Domestic Security, Civil Liberties, and National Unity After September 11,” Migration Policy Institute, 2003, p. 7.

[24] Miriam Jordan, “Illegals' New Lament: Have Degree, No Job,” The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2005, p. B1.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Gorgonio Balbuena, et al. v. IDR Realty LLC, et al; 2004 N.Y. App. Div.

[27] Unless otherwise noted, material in the background section comes from Rodman D. Griffin, “Illegal Immigration,” The CQ Researcher, April 24, 1992, pp. 361-384; Kenneth Jost, “Cracking Down on Immigration,” The CQ Researcher, Feb. 3, 1995, pp. 97-120; and David Masci, “Debate Over Immigration,” The CQ Researcher, July 14, 2000, pp. 569-592.

[28] For background, see Richard L. Worsnop, “Asian Americans,” The CQ Researcher, Dec. 13, 1991, pp. 945-968.

[29] Quoted in Ellis Cose, A Nation of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics and the Populating of America (1992), p. 191.

[30] Cited in Michael Fix, ed., The Paper Curtain: Employer Sanctions' Implementation, Impact, and Reform (1991), p. 2.

[31] Quoted in Tom Morganthau et al., “Closing the Door,” Newsweek, June 25, 1984.

[32] Quoted in Dick Kirschten, “Come In! Keep Out!,” National Journal, May 19, 1990, p. 1206.

[33] For background, see Peter Katel, “Haiti's Dilemma,” The CQ Researcher, Feb. 18, 2005, pp. 149-172.

[34] Cose, op. cit., p. 192.

[35] Ann Chih Lin, ed. Immigration, CQ Press (2002), pp. 60-61.

[36] William Branigin, “Congress Finishes Major Legislation; Immigration; Focus is Borders, Not Benefits,” The Washington Post, Oct. 1, 1996, p. A1.

[37] David Johnston, “Government is Quickly Using Power of New Immigration Law,” The New York Times, Oct. 22, 1996, p. A20.

[38] William Branigin, “INS Shifts 'Interior' Strategy to Target Criminal Aliens,” The Washington Post, March 15, 1999, p. A3.

[39] The 9/11 Commission, op. cit., pp. 215-223.

[40] Adam Liptak, Neil A. Lewis and Benjamin Weiser, “After Sept. 11, a Legal Battle On the Limits of Civil Liberty,” The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2002, p. A1. For background, see Patrick Marshall, “Policing the Borders,” The CQ Researcher, Feb. 22, 2002, pp. 145-168.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Deborah Meyers and Jennifer Yau, US Immigration Statistics in 2003, Migration Policy Institute, Nov. 1, 2004,; and Homeland Security Department, “2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics,”

[43] Passel, op. cit., p. 8.

[44] Meyers and Yau, op. cit.

[45] Lin, op. cit., p. 20.

[46] Anne Plummer, “Immigration Provisions Likely to Remain in Supplemental Spending Bill, Reid Says,” CQ Today, April 25, 2005.

[47] Seth Stern, “Senate Tries to Keep Immigration Proposals from Sticking to Supplemental,” CQ Today, April 12, 2005.

[48] Matthew L. Wald and David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. May Require Closer Scrutiny to Get a License,” New York Times, May 3, 2005, p. A-1.

[49] Tamar Jacoby, “Thinking Out Loud/Immigration,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2005, p. M-3.

[50] “Proposition 200,” Arizona Secretary of State,

[51] Ibid.

[52] Jacques Billeaud, “Congressman: Prop 200's passage was key moment in effort to limit immigration,” The Associated Press, April 2, 2005.

[53] Jacques Billeaud, “Arizona lawmakers try to add restrictions for illegal immigrants,” The Associated Press, March 24, 2005.

[54] Chris L. Jenkins, “Warner Signs Limits on Immigrant Benefits,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2005, p. B5.

[55] David Kelly, “Colorado Activists Push Immigration Initiative,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2005, p. A23.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Michael Easterbrook, “Anger rises toward illegal immigrants,” [Raleigh, N.C.] News & Observer, April 17, 2005, p. A1.

[58] CNN, op. cit.

[59] Samuel Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2004.

[60] CNN, op. cit.

[61] King's quotes are from ibid.

[62] Hutchinson's quotes are from ibid.

[63] “The Wall Behind Which Refugees Can Shelter,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2001;

[64] Dan Robinson, “Congress — Immigration,” Voice of America, Dec. 8, 2004,

[65] “Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Executive Summary, pp. 1-2, Feb. 8, 2005,

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid, p. 295.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Cornelius, op. cit., p. 24.

[70] CNN, op. cit.

[71] Ginger Thompson and James C. McKinley Jr., “Opposition Chief at Risk in Mexico,” The New York Times, April 8, 2005, p. A1.

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Are today's immigrants assimilating into U.S. society?

Tamar Jacoby
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute; editor, Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What it Means to be American (2004)
From “Think Tank,” Public Broadcasting Service, June 24, 2004

It's always been true that Americans have loved the immigrants of a generation or two ago and been frightened by the immigrants of their era. They think the past worked perfectly, and they look around and exaggerate how difficult it is in the present.

Your average American says, “Well, I hear all this Spanish spoken.” But in the second generation, if you grow up here you may not learn [Spanish] in school; you may learn it on the street, but you become proficient in English. By the third generation, about two-thirds of Hispanics speak only English. You can be in Mexican-American neighborhoods in California and hear all the adults speaking to each other in Spanish, and the little siblings speak to each other in English.

The bulk of immigrants who are coming now are people who understand cultural fluidity, understand intermarriage [and] find that a natural, easy thing. They understand the mixing of cultures and find the binary nature of our views of race and our views of out and in very alien. And that bodes well for assimilation.

One statistic tells the story. In 1960, half of American men hadn't finished high school. Today, only 10 percent of American men have not finished high school. The people who used to drop out of high school in 1960 did a kind of job that Americans don't want to do anymore. Immigrants don't tend to displace American workers. They have some effect on wages — a small, temporary effect. But it's not a zero-sum game. They help grow the economy.

The key is [for immigrants to] buy into our political values and play by the rules. It's a balance between that sense of shared values and shared political ideals — and then [doing] whatever you want to do at home.

After 9/11, Americans were very frightened. Polls showed huge numbers — two-thirds or higher — thought that the borders should be closed or that we should have much lower [immigration] numbers. Some of those surface fears are ebbing, but I think people [remain] uneasy. [Yet] there's a kind of optimism and a faith in America and in America's power to absorb people that you could tap into. If you said we have control but we are absorbing them, I think you could get people to go for higher [immigration] numbers. And when you look at the big picture — are today's immigrants assimilating? The evidence is: Yes.

Victor Davis Hanson
Fellow, Hoover Institution; author, Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2003)
From World Magazine, April 2, 2005

With perhaps as many as 20 million illegal aliens from Mexico, and the immigration laws in shreds, we are reaching a state of crisis. Criminals abound to prey on illegal aliens because they assume their victims are afraid to call the police, carry mostly cash, don't speak English, live as transients among mostly young males and are not legal participants in their communities.

If there were not a perennial supply of cheap labor, wages would rise and would draw back workers to now despised seasonal jobs; something is terribly wrong when central California counties experience 15 percent unemployment and yet insist that without thousands of illegal aliens from Oaxaca crops won't be picked and houses not built. At some point, some genius is going to make the connection that illegal immigration may actually explain high unemployment by ensuring employers cheap labor that will not organize, can be paid in cash and often requires little government deductions and expense.

Attitudes about legality need to revert back to the pre-1960s and 1970s, when immigration was synonymous with integration and assimilation. We need to dispense with the flawed idea of multiculturalism and return to the ideal of multiracialism under the aegis of a unifying Western civilization.

First-generation meritocratic Asians at places like University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles provide an example. What is the Asian community doing that its Mexican counterpart is not? Is it family emphasis on education, a sense of separation from the motherland, a tendency to stress achievement rather than victimization, preference for private enterprise rather than government entitlement? We need to discuss these taboo and politically incorrect paradoxes if we really wish to end something like four of 10 California Hispanic high-school students not graduating. Too many are profiteering and finding careers out of perpetuating the failure of others — others who will be the dominant population of the American Southwest in another decade.

In all public discourse and debate, when the racial chauvinist screams “racist” in lieu of logic, we all need to quit recoiling or apologizing, and instead rejoin with “Shame on you, shame, shame, shame for polluting legitimate discussion with race.”

We need to return to what is known to work: measured and legal immigration, strict enforcement of our existing laws, stiff employer sanctions, an end to bilingual documents and interpreters — in other words, an end to the disastrous salad bowl and a return to the successful melting pot.

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After waves of European immigrants are welcomed, anti-immigrant resentment builds.

Chinese Exclusion Act specifically bars additional Chinese immigrants.

Public concern about the nation's changing ethnic makeup and hard economic times prompt Congress to limit immigration and set quotas intended to preserve the nation's ethnic makeup.

Congress establishes a national-origins quota system, effectively excluding Asians and Southern Europeans.

U.S. Border Patrol is created to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, primarily across the Mexican border.

Labor shortages and expansion of U.S. economy during World War II attract Mexican laborers. U.S. accepts war survivors, welcomes refugees from communist countries and overhauls immigration laws.

U.S. creates Bracero guest worker program, allowing immigrant Mexican farmworkers to work temporarily on American farms.

Congress authorizes extra 200,000 visas for concentration camp survivors, later raised to more than 400,000.

Congress passes landmark Immigration and Nationality Act, codifying existing quota system favoring immigrants from northern Europe but exempting Mexican farmworkers in Texas.

U.S. exempts refugees fleeing communist countries from quota system.

Amid growing Civil Rights Movement, U.S. scraps the biased quota system and admits more Asians and Latin Americans.

Major overhaul of immigration law scraps national quotas, giving preference to relatives of immigrants.

Congress orders those fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba to be admitted automatically if they reach U.S. shores.

Tide of illegal immigrants rises dramatically, prompting policy makers to act.

Number of illegal immigrants apprehended on U.S.-Mexican border reaches a peak of 1.7 million. Congress again overhauls immigration law, legalizing undocumented workers and for the first time imposing sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants.

Immigration laws fail to deter illegal immigrants, creating backlash that prompts another overhaul of immigration laws; national-security concerns cloud immigration debate after two terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by Middle Eastern visitors.

World Trade Center is bombed by Middle Eastern terrorists, two of whom had green cards; mastermind had applied for political asylum.

Number of illegal immigrants in U.S. reaches 5 million; Congress passes major immigration-reform law beefing up border security and restricting political asylum.

Most of California's anti-illegal immigrant statute is declared unconstitutional.

Sept. 11, 2001
Terrorists with visas attack World Trade Center and Pentagon; anti-immigrant backlash ensues.

The 9/11 Commission points to “systemic weaknesses” in border-control and immigration systems.

Jan. 20, 2005
President Bush calls for a “temporary worker” program that would not include “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

May 2005
Sen. F. James Sensenbrenner's Real ID bill, which would block states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, appears close to passage.

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Borjas, George J. , Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, Princeton University Press, 2000. A Harvard economist who is a leading figure in the debate over immigration and the economy argues for encouraging immigration by the highly skilled while discouraging the entry of low-skilled workers.

Dow, Mark , American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, University of California Press, 2004. A freelance journalist penetrates the secretive world of immigrant detention and finds widespread abuse of prisoners who are granted few, if any, legal rights.

Huntington, Samuel P. , Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, Simon & Schuster, 2004. A Harvard professor argues that mass immigration, especially from Latin America, is flooding the United States with people who are not assimilating into mainstream society.

Jacoby, Tamar , ed., Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means To Be An American, Basic Books, 2004. Authors representing strongly differing views and experiences on immigration contribute essays on how the present wave of immigrants is changing — and being changed by — the United States. Edited by a pro-immigration scholar at the moderately libertarian Manhattan Institute.

Lin, Ann Chih, ed., and Nicole W. Green , Immigration, CQ Press, Vital Issues Series, 2002. This useful collection of information on recent immigration policy and law changes also includes steps that other countries have taken to deal with issues similar to those under debate in the United States.


Cooper, Marc , “Last Exit to Tombstone,” L.A. Weekly, March 25, 2005, p. 24. A reporter visits the Mexican desert border towns where immigrants prepare to cross illegally into the United States and finds them undaunted by the dangers ahead.

Jordan, Miriam , “As Border Tightens, Growers See Threat to 'Winter Salad Bowl,' ” The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2005, p. A1. Lettuce farmers plead with immigration officials not to crack down on illegal immigration at the height of the harvest season in Arizona.

Kammer, Jerry , “Immigration plan's assumption on unskilled workers contested,” San Diego Union-Tribune, March 31, 2005, p. A1. Even immigrants who once lacked legal status themselves are worried about the continued influx of illegal immigrants, because they drive down wages.

Porter, Eduardo , “Illegal Immigrants are Bolstering Social Security With Billions,” The New York Times, April 5, 2005, p. A1. Government figures indicate that illegal immigrants are subsidizing Social Security by about $7 billion a year by paying taxes from which they will never benefit.

Seper, Jerry , “Rounding Up All Illegals 'Not Realistic,' ” Washington Times, Sept. 10, 2004, p. A1. The undersecretary of homeland security acknowledges that law enforcement officials are not hunting for all illegal immigrants, something he said would be neither possible nor desirable.

Reports and Studies

Lee, Joy, Jack Martin and Stan Fogel , “Immigrant Stock's Share of U.S. Population Growth, 1970-2004,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, 2005. The authors conclude that more than half of the country's population growth since 1970 stems from increased immigration, raising the danger of overpopulation and related ills.

Orozco, Manuel , “The Remittance Marketplace: Prices, Policy and Financial Institutions,” Pew Hispanic Center, June 2004. A leading scholar of remittances — money sent back home by immigrants — analyzes the growth of the trend and the regulatory environment in which it operates.

Stana, Richard M. , “Immigration Enforcement: Challenges to Implementing the INS Interior Enforcement Strategy,” General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office), testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, June 19, 2002. A top GAO official finds a multitude of reasons why immigration officials have not been able to deport criminal illegal immigrants, break up people-smuggling rings and crack down on employers of illegal immigrants.

“Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Department of Homeland Security: One Year Anniversary — No Time for Celebration,” Human Rights First, April 2004. Some rights of asylum-seekers are being eroded as the number of people granted asylum drops, the advocacy organization concludes, urging changes in procedures.

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Next Step

Border Patrol

Egan, Timothy , “Wanted: Border Hoppers. And Some Excitement, Too,” The New York Times, April 1, 2005, p. A14. The Minuteman Project is an effort to post 1,000 volunteers across 23 miles of the border led by a former teacher who accuses the government of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration.

Johnson, Scott , “The Border War,” Newsweek, April 4, 2005, p. 29. While the federal government fails to effectively change immigration polcies, businesses throughout the United States have grown thoroughly dependent on Mexican laborers, while U.S.-Mexico tensions are rising to dangerous levels.

Sullivan, Kevin , “An Often-Crossed Line in the Sand,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2005, p. A1. High-tech barricades help U.S. authorities catch more than 3,000 people every year along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, but despite an unprecedented investment in technology and manpower, the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is rising.

Wood, Daniel , “Private Volunteers Patrol a Porous Border,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2005, p. 1. Some 1,500 self-selected volunteers will begin manning outposts along the Arizona border in a controversial bid to help keep illegal immigrants from entering the U.S.

Driver's Licenses

Bernstein, Nina , “Immigrants Face Loss of Licenses in ID Crackdown,” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2004, p. B1. State legislatures have been debating whether to make it harder or easier for illegal immigrants to get licenses. The struggle to reconcile public security and the reality of illegal workers has led to fierce debate and widely different laws.

Caldwell, Alicia, and Michael Riley , “Fierce Demand Drives Illegal-License Market,” The Denver Post, Jan. 30, 2005, p. A1. Colorado Department of Motor Vehicle employees are arrested for allegedly selling licenses to illegal immigrants for up to $3,000.

James, Frank , “Immigrant ID Rules Debated,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2005, News Section, p. 1. Legislation pending in the Senate would make it impossible for the nation's millions of undocumented workers to obtain legal driver's licenses. Advocates say the bill is vital to America's security.

Wood, Daniel , “Driver's License Bill Roils a Melting Pot,” The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 17, 2005, p. 3. In California, illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens are debating the Real ID Act, which opponents say would trample the rights of the 11 states that currently allow illegal immigrants to possess driver's licenses.

Illegal Immigrants and Crime

James, Frank , “U.S. Tracks Immigrants With Device,” Chicago Tribune, April 4, 2005, News Section, p. 15. The Homeland Security Department tries to reduce the number of detained illegal immigrants by fitting some with electronic monitoring devices, but critics say the program treats them like criminals.

LeDuff, Charlie , “Police Say Immigrant Policy Is Hindrance,” The New York Times, April 7, 2005, p. A16. Los Angeles police officers say that some of the most cutthroat criminals in the city are illegal immigrants, but the city's sanctuary policy prohibits officers from asking about someone's immigration status unless that person is being charged with a crime.

Marosi, Richard , “Criminals at the Border Thwarted by Own Hands,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 19, 2005, p. A1. The U.S. Border Patrol has arrested tens of thousands of people with criminal records since the agency installed a fingerprinting system that identifies criminals among the 1 million illegal migrants apprehended annually.

Illegal-Worker Issues

Gamerman, Ellen , “Parents Often Turn a Blind Eye, Hiring Nannies Illegally in U.S.,” The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 15, 2004, p. 1E. The issue of illegal nannies only seems to come up around Senate confirmation time, but, in fact, illegal nannies are commonplace in cities where affluent two-career couples are raising children.

Greenhouse, Steven , “Wal-Mart to Pay U.S. $11 Million In Lawsuit on Immigrant Workers,” The New York Times, March 19, 2005, p. A1. Wal-Mart Stores agreed to pay a record $11 million to settle accusations that it used hundreds of illegal immigrants to clean some of its 3,600 U.S. stores and pledged strong action to prevent future employment of illegals.

Hendricks, Tyche , “10.3 Million Immigrants in U.S. Illegally, Researcher on Latinos Says,” The San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 2005, p. A4. An estimated 7 million people are employed in the United States without legal authorization, roughly 5 percent of the work force. Most work for low pay and lack protection from workplace exploitation.

Reddy, Sumathi , “Bill Aims to Protect Immigrants from Victimization,” The Baltimore Sun, March 13, 2005, p. 1B. Immigrant and legal groups support a Maryland bill that would regulate immigration consultants and make it easier for victims to sue those who prey upon immigrant communities.

Immigration Opposition

Crowley, Michael , “Border War,” The New Republic, March 28, 2005, p. 12. As President Bush works to soften the Republican Party's image on immigration and lift its standing among Latino voters, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., of Denver, is trying to lead a resurgent anti-immigration wing of the party.

Johnson, Kevin , “On the Trail of 400,00 Fugitives,” USA Today, Jan. 6, 2005, p. 3A. About 80 immigration agents nationwide are assigned by the Department of Homeland Security to find an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants who didn't leave the U.S. on time or failed to appear at immigration hearings.

Stewart, Nikita , “Illegal Immigrant Foes Play Activist Role,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2005, p. B1. The 150-member Virginia Coalition Against Terrorism, which includes some immigrants, is dedicated to fighting new arrivals, saying illegal immigration feeds terrorism.

Political Battles

Curtius, Mary , “Guest Worker Plan in Doubt,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 18, 2005, p. A1. President Bush said he would pursue legislation that would legalize some of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. by granting them temporary worker status.

Jacoby, Tamar , “Let's Put This ID Plan to Work,” The Washington Post, April 3, 2005, p. B4. The Senate prepares for a fight over immigration with its vote on the House-passed Real ID Act, which would make it more difficult for states to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

McKinley, James , “At Mexican Border, Tunnels, Vile River, Rusty Fence,” The New York Times, March 23, 2005, p. A8. In a meeting between Presidents Bush and Fox of Mexico and Prime Minister Martin of Canada, the interests of the United States and its neighbors diverge.

Murray, Shailagh , “Conservatives Split in Debate on Curbing Illegal Immigration,” The Washington Post, March 25, 2005, p. A2. The immigration debate pits Republicans who want to tighten borders and deport illegal immigrants against those who want to acknowledge the growing economic importance of illegal workers.

Mexico and the U.S.

LeDuff, Charlie, and Emilio Flores , “The Everymigrant's Guide to Crossing the Border Illegally,” The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2005, p. A16. To help prevent death and deportation, Mexico has published a guide on the intricacies of sneaking into the U.S., infuriating some American politicians.

Thompson, Ginger , “Mexico's Migrants Profit From Dollars Sent Home,” The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2005, p. A1. The remittances sent home by immigrant workers are translating into political clout, and their U.S. communities have become important social and political forces.

Wallsten, Peter, and Richard Boudreaux , “Bush Renews Migrant Pledge,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 22, 2004, p. A1. President Bush made a commitment to Mexican President Fox to push a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. as guest workers even though it appears unlikely to win backing in Congress.


Ante, Spencer , “Keeping Out the Wrong People,” Business Week, Oct. 4, 2004, p. 90. The vital flow of foreign professionals into the U.S. is slowing, critics say, because newly tightened visa rules aren't distinguishing between potential terrorists and legitimate travelers.

Kalita, Mitra , “As Government Cap on Work Visas Rises, So Does Confusion,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2005, p. E1. The U.S. government will issue an additional 20,000 visas for skilled foreign workers since the 2005 cap was met so quickly, but getting one is confusing.

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Center for Comparative Immigration Studies,
University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0548
(858) 822-4447;
Analyzes U.S. immigration trends and compares them with patterns in Europe and Asia.

Center for Immigration Studies,
1522 K St., N.W., Suite 820, Washington, DC 20005-1202
(202) 466-8185;
A think tank that advocates reduced immigration.

Civil Homeland Defense,
P. O. Box 1579, Tombstone, AZ 85638
(520) 457-3008;
An offshoot of the Minuteman Project that encourages citizens to patrol the Mexican border in Arizona against illegal immigrants.

Federation for American Immigration Reform,
1666 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20009
(202) 328-7004;
A leading advocate for cracking down on illegal immigration and reducing legal immigration.

Migration Dialogue,
University of California, Davis, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616
(530) 752-1011;
An academic research center that focuses on immigration from rural Mexico and publishes two quarterly Web bulletins.

Migration Policy Institute,
1400 16th St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036
(202) 266-1940;
Analyzes global immigration trends and advocates fairer, more humane conditions for immigrants.

National Immigration Law Center,
3435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2850, Los Angeles, CA 90010
(213) 639.3900;
Advocacy organization aimed at defending the legal rights of low-income immigrants.

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Special Focus

The tension was high in suburban Atlanta last October when protesters confronted hundreds of illegal immigrants who were marching to demand the right to obtain driver's licenses.

The peaceful, sign-waving march soon turned ugly, as angry epithets were hurled back and forth across busy Buford Highway. “This is my country! You are criminals”! You cannot have my country,” shouted D.A. King, a former insurance salesman and self-styled anti-immigrant vigilante. Boos and hisses erupted from the mostly Hispanic immigrants across the street. [1]

The heated exchange, caught by a CNN television crew, captured the intensifying debate over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Eleven states now issue such licenses, and several others are considering permitting similar laws, but a growing grass-roots movement opposes the licenses, including groups like the American Resistance Foundation, founded by King.

The immigrants' supporters say illegal workers are the backbone of the nation's economic success and that being able to drive legally would allow them to open bank accounts and do other tasks requiring an official identification card. It would also make America's roads safer, the proponents say, by holding immigrants to the same driving and insurance requirements as U.S. citizens. Unlicensed drivers are nearly five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, and uninsured drivers cause 14 percent of all accidents, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. [2]

But King and others say uncontrolled immigration depresses wages, increases crime and causes neighborhood blight, and that granting undocumented workers driver's licenses would only legalize illegal behavior.

Until now the debate over immigrant driver's licenses has been restricted to a few traditional border states, like California, where a new law permitting undocumented workers to get licenses helped defeat Democratic Gov. Gray Davis during the 2003 gubernatorial recall election. Lawmakers repealed the law shortly after Arnold Schwarzenegger was inaugurated as governor, and Schwarzenegger has since vetoed related bills. He wants the licenses of undocumented workers to bear a unique mark.

Now the debate has moved to states throughout the country. In Utah and Tennessee, state laws now give illegal workers so-called “driving privilege cards,” which warn in bold, red letters they cannot be used as legal identification. [3] New York state's motor-vehicles commissioner in April denied license renewals and suspended the licenses of illegal immigrants without a Social Security card or acceptable visa. [4] The state's Supreme Court, which made a preliminary ruling rejecting the commissioner's action, is currently hearing the issue.

Now some in Congress want to jump into the fray — even though issuing driver's licenses has long been the domain of the states. In January, Wisconsin Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. proposed the Real ID Act, which would establish national driver's license standards, toughen asylum requirements and speed completion of a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. But the driver's license provision has caused the most debate.

“My bill's goal is straightforward: It seeks to prevent another 9/11-type attack by disrupting terrorist travel,” Sensenbrenner said. The bill would require states to verify that driver's-license applicants reside legally in the United States before issuing a license that could be used for federal identification purposes, such as boarding an airplane. [5]

The bill, which Sensenbrenner attached to a “must-pass” emergency military-spending bill, was approved by the House, 261-161, on Feb. 10, and the Senate passed a different version, not including Real ID, on April 21. The House and the Senate are currently in conference to reconcile the two versions of the bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says passage is likely, and President Bush has said he will sign the measure. [6]

The bill's supporters say providing secure driver's licenses to illegal immigrants would improve national security, because licenses are now the de facto form of identification in the United States. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, found that the attackers used driver's licenses rather than passports to avoid creating suspicion. [7]

“At many entry points to vulnerable facilities, including gates for boarding aircraft,” the commission's 2004 report noted, “sources of identification are the last opportunity to ensure that people are who they say they are and to check whether they are terrorists.” [8]

During House debate, Sensenbrenner said that the Real ID bill might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks because it requires that any license or ID card issued to visitors expire on the same date the person's visa expires.

Immigrants and community leaders in New York City protest on April 13, 2004, against a state policy that denies driver's licenses to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The protest followed a crackdown on individuals without Social Security numbers. Getty Images/Stephen Chernin

“Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 murderers, entered the United States on a six-month visa [which] expired on July 9, 2001. He got a [six-month] driver's license from the state of Florida on May 5, 2001,” Sensenbrenner said. “Had this bill been in effect at the time, that driver's license would have expired on July 9, and he would not have been able to use that driver's license to get on a plane.” [9]

Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which seeks to halt illegal immigration, says the difficulty of distinguishing between “illegal aliens merely looking for jobs and potential terrorists looking to carry out attacks” argues against granting licenses to non-citizens. “People who have entered the country illegally — regardless of their motives — should not be able to receive a driver's license,” he says.

But critics of the proposed law say denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants would pose a greater threat to U.S. safety. “Allowing a driver the possibility to apply for a license to drive to work means that person's photograph, address and proof of insurance will be on file at the local DMV,” a recent Los Angeles Times editorial argued. “And that is something to make us all feel safer.” [10]

The Real ID Act “threatens to handcuff state officials with impossible, untested mandates, such as requiring instant verification of birth certificates, without providing the time or resources needed,” says the National Conference of State Legislatures. [11]

Moreover, says Joan Friedland, a policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, the law is just “smoke and mirrors” because it is “an inadequate and meaningless substitute for real, comprehensive reform and doesn't resolve the problem of national security.”

But Martin says a national law that coordinates driver's-license policies across the nation is vital to security. “Right now, there is virtually a different approach in every state,” he says. “People who wish to take advantage of the system can easily target whichever state has the most lax requirements.”

— Kate Templin


[1] Quoted from “CNN Presents: Immigrant Nation: Divided Country,” Oct. 17, 2004.




[3] T. R. Reid and Darryl Fears, “Driver's License Curtailed as Identification,” The Washington Post, April 17, 2003, p. A3.


[4] Nina Bernstein, “Fight Over Immigrants' Driving Licenses Is Back in Court,” The New York Times, April 7, 2005, p. B6.




[6] Anne Plummer, “Immigration Provisions Likely to Remain in Supplemental Spending Bill, Reid Says,” CQ Today, April 25, 2005.


[7] For background, see Kenneth Jost, “Re-examining 9/11,” The CQ Researcher, June 4, 2004, pp. 493-516.


[8] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, p. 390.


[9] Frank James, “Immigrant ID Rules Debated,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2005, News Section, p. 1.


[10] “Real ID, Unreal Expectations,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2005.


[11] National Conference of State Legislatures,

To some Americans, undocumented Mexicans are job-stealing, non-English-speaking threats to American culture, economic well-being and national security.

“I'm afraid that America could become a Third World country,” Atlanta-area Realtor Jimmy Herchek told CNN. “We're importing poverty by millions every year.” [12]

To other observers, Mexicans and other illegal workers are crucial to the economy. “There are major benefits to both employers and consumers — in other words, all of us. [T]his supply of labor makes it possible to produce your goods and services more cheaply,” said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego. “So there are literally hundreds of thousands of employers in this country that have a major stake in continued access to this kind of labor.”

And in Mexico, the 6 million illegal migrantes in the United States are viewed as heroes, often braving death in desert crossings to take tough construction and service jobs in the United States to support families back home. More than 3,000 Mexicans died trying to cross the border between 1996 and 2004, but those who arrive safely and find work in the United States sent home $16 billion last year — Mexico's third-largest source of revenue. [13]

However, the immigrants' courage and dedication to their families — not to mention the benefit to the U.S. economy from their low-wage labor — haven't earned them the right to work legally in the United States. Far from it, says Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Carlos de Icaza, who supports a program to allow migrantes to live and work legally in the United States.

“Migrants are very vulnerable,” he says in an interview at his office near the White House. “The difficult situation of these hard-working people makes them subject to abuse.”

Many are mistreated once they arrive in the United States — either by anti-immigrant activists, abusive border guards or unscrupulous employers, who know illegal workers are reluctant to report salary and other abuses to authorities. Indeed, stories about U.S. mistreatment of migrants are daily fare in Mexico. El Universal, one of Mexico City's most influential newspapers, reported in April that 4,400 Mexicans were injured or mistreated by anti-immigrant civilians or Border Patrol agents in 2004. [14]

Icaza says that setting up a legal way for Mexicans to work in the United States would direct them to communities where their labor is needed and wanted, helping to dissipate the tensions that arise now when lots of Mexicans arrive suddenly in communities offering seasonal jobs.

Illegal immigrants have traditionally settled in California, Florida, New York and a few other states, but in recent years enclaves have sprung up in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and other states unaccustomed to the phenomenon. [15]

Often, local residents complain the new immigrants cost taxpayers money for health care, schools and social services and bring gang-related crime. “What I saw happen in California over 30 years is happening here in just a few years,” James Burke, 57, a retired ironworker from Cullman, Ala., said as he signed up volunteers to push for immigration control. [16]

Burke is part of a grass-roots movement seeking tougher immigration rules and border patrols. “Our goal is to stop illegal immigration and get rid of the illegal immigrants who are here,” he said. [17]

Those goals are clearly at odds with the Mexican government's campaign to forge an immigration accord with the United States that would allow Mexicans to work here legally. Drawing on apparent friendship with George W. Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox began his presidency five years ago promising to strike an immigration deal with the United States.

Shortly after taking office, Fox invited his newly elected American counterpart to his ranch. The two presidents assigned top officials to start negotiating a deal. “Geography has made us neighbors,” Bush said, standing next to Fox, both men in cowboy boots. “Cooperation and respect will make us partners.” [18]

In fact, the pre-9/11 climate was so immigration-friendly that Mexico's foreign minister confidently bragged that Mexico wouldn't settle for anything less than a deal legalizing Mexicans already in the United States. “It's the whole enchilada or nothing,” Jorge G. Castañeda said. [19]

So far, it's been nada. Nothing. For Fox the politician, the lack of action is especially bad news for his legacy. Mexico's constitution allows only one six-year term, and Fox's term ends in July 2006. Yet, comprehensive immigration reform in the United States seems as distant as ever.

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox discussed immigration at Bush's Texas ranch in March 2004. Bush supports a guest worker program for illegal immigrants in the U.S. but opposes legalization. Getty Images/Rod Aydelotte

“Fox staked his presidency on getting a bilateral [immigration] agreement with the United States,” says Manuel García y Griego, a specialist on U.S-Mexico relations at the University of Texas, Arlington. On the other hand, “Mr. Bush has spent his political capital very selectively, only on things that are close to his heart — making tax cuts permanent, Iraq. I don't see immigration in that category.”

But Icaza insists the United States needs an accord as urgently as Mexico. For security reasons alone, he says, the United States must know who is living in the country illegally — and a legalization program would allow illegal residents to step forward with impunity.

Moreover, Icaza says, citing almost word-for-word the Council of Economic Advisers' latest annual report to the president: “The benefits to the U.S. economy are larger than the costs associated with Social Security, health and education.” [20]

But the amnesty proposal may not go very far if Bush perceives the issue as alienating his political base in the Southern and Midwestern “red states” that are now attracting many migrantes.

“Folks here could always go out and get a construction job for a decent wage,” said Lee Bevang, in Covington, Ga. “But the contractors have totally taken advantage of illegal aliens, paying them wages no American can live on. My husband has been laid off. The concern about this is just huge.” [21]


[12] Quoted on “Immigrant Nation: Divided Country,” CNN Presents, Oct. 17, 2004.


[13] The desert death figure comes from Wayne Cornelius, “Controlling 'Unwanted' Immigraton: Lessons from the United States, 1993-2004,” Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California-San Diego, Working Paper No. 92, December, 2004, p. 14, The remittances figure comes from “Las Remesas Familiares en Mexico,” Banco de Mexico, noviembre, 2004, In English, a study by the Inter-American Development Bank has slightly older statistics: “Sending Money Home: Remittance to Latin America and the Caribbean,” May 2004,


[14] Jorge Herrera, “Impulsa Senado protecciÛn a connacionales,” p. 17,


[15] Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population,” Pew Hispanic Center, March 21, 2005,


[16] David Kelly, “Illegal Immigration Fears Have Spread; Populist calls for tougher enforcement are being heard beyond the border states,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2005.


[17] Ibid.


[18] Mike Allen and Kevin Sullivan, “Meeting in Mexico, Presidents Agree to Form Immigration Panel,” The Washington Post, Feb. 16, p. A1.


[19] Patrick J. O'Donnell, “Amnesty by Any Name is Hot Topic,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2001, p. A1.


[20] “Economic Report of the President,” February 2005, p. 115,


[21] Quoted in Kelly, op. cit.

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