The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to toughen the country’s immigration laws to stymie those attempting to enter the United States illegally and make earning a living difficult for those who already have arrived.
The bill would nearly double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents, better equip the agents and put up miles of fencing and other barriers. For those who manage to enter the country, the legislation would crack down on fraudulent documents that allow many illegal immigrants to work and would sharply curb the distribution of federal benefits - from welfare to student financial aid.
Smugglers would face far tougher penalties under the legislation, as would those who engage in the multimillion-dollar business of manufacturing fake driver’s licenses, birth certificates and other identification cards. The bill also calls for more detention facilities for those caught in the country illegally, plus streamlined deportation procedures to remove them more quickly.
Senators struck from the bill most of the provisions affecting legal immigrants, including sharp cuts in immigration numbers. But the bill would sharply limit federal benefits for non-citizens and would hold legal immigrants’ sponsors financially responsible for those they bring into the country.
“We have brought forth significant changes in legal and illegal immigration that are rather sweeping,” said Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., the chief sponsor of the bill. “This issue is about America and America is about conflict and resolution. It’s about these things that pull and tear at us.”
It was California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative seeking to bar illegal immigrants from a variety of public services, that catapulted immigration onto the national stage. The Senate’s 97 to 3 vote, coming six weeks after House passage of a similar crackdown, means the most far-reaching immigration reform in a decade could be in place by summer.
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill, but the White House has expressed concerns with some provisions in both the House and Senate bills, and is pressing for reforms during conference.
“While this bill strongly supports our enforcement efforts, it still goes too far in denying legal immigrants access to vital safety net programs which could jeopardize public health and safety,” Clinton said in a statement. “Some work still needs to be done. I urge Congress to move quickly to finalize and send me this key legislation.”
The Senate legislation - arrived at after nearly 52 hours of debate spread over eight days - differs from the House version in one significant respect: It lacks a provision sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., that would give states the right to ban public schooling for illegal immigrant children.
Advocate groups differed on just what effect the new law would have, with the bill pleasing neither immigrant rights groups nor hard-line immigration reformers.
Christa M. Schacht, staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, feared the legislation could bring on “farreaching and unintended consequences” and an “atmosphere of intolerance” affecting Latinos in general.
But K.C. McAlphin, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the Senate pulled its punches because of cries from special interests.
“This is not going to make a dent in solving the problem,” he said. “It’s a charade. It’s not real. Once they get here, illegal immigrants are still home free.”
xxxx IMMIGRATION BILL On the border - Adds up to 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. On the job - Implements a pilot project for employers to check with a federal agency to determine if job applicants are eligible for employment. In your wallet - Directs the federal government to make driver’s licenses and identification cards less susceptible to misuse. In the community - Denies federal assistance in health care, education, etc. if an immigrant’s sponsor is able to pay.