Immigration

How it's affecting us

To such assertions, Senator Simpson has replied that the national identity card would be nothing more than a forge-proof record of a Social Security number, which is already required when accepting most jobs, opening a bank account, registering at many universities, and participating in other aspects of modern life. How would civil liberties be harmed, he asks, by a more authentic card? Are they not more gravely threatened by continuing to encourage the flow of immigrants who live outside the full protection of the law?

Finally, Hispanic organizations oppose employer sanctions, arguing that a crackdown on illegal immigrants will become a crackdown on anyone who looks Hispanic. "Well meaning employers, fearful of government sanctions, will shy away from hiring us," says Vilma Martinez, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Racist or biased employers will simply use the fear sanctions as an excuse to avoid hiring us."

The supporters of the bill contend that, on the contrary, a universal identity card will protect Hispanic Americans. Since everyone will have to present his identity card, Flanigan as well as Rodriguez, the Hispanic will have ironclad proof of his right to hold the job. (Under the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, the employer would be obliged to ask for the card, and once it was presented, he would be obliged to accept it as proof of legally admitted status.) This has not convinced the Hispanic organizations, who represent the most formidable opposition to the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. Their arguments so persuaded Senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, that he became the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. The way out of this standoff may be through modifications of the bill, such as those proposed by Gary Hart. He has sponsored an amendment that would impose stiff penalties on employers who discriminate against employees on the basis of "national origin."

As a complement to its crackdown on illegal immigration, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill proposes an amnesty for illegal aliens who are already here. Anyone who could prove that he had been in the country since before a certain cutoff date would be granted the status of having been legally admitted. Under the current Senate version of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, anyone here before January 1, 1977, would immediately qualify for permanent-resident status, and anyone here before January 1, 1980, would qualify for temporary-resident status, which could be converted to permanent-resident status if the immigrant demonstrated competence in English within two years. The bill has not yet passed the House, and the House version includes amendments that would push the 1977 date forward to 1982.

We're never going to see again in this country what we saw in 1954 with Operation Wetback," says Alan Eliason, the Border Patrol chief in E1 Paso, speaking of the last large-scale attempt to round up illegal immigrants. "We are not going to go out and try to locate and deport several million illegal aliens. We don't have the resources. People won't stand for it. It's not going to happen." Senator Simpson also says that amnesty is inseparable from the basic goal of immigration reform: ending the two-class society in which some immigrants live outside the shelter of the law.

The major opposition to amnesty now comes from local governments. Once immigrants are free to step out of the shadows, it is argued, they will demand more public assistance. But if Orange County, California, or Dade County, Florida, or Bexar County, Texas, ends up bearing an unfair burden for this change in national policy, the federal government should offer reimbursement. It is no solution at all to pretend that the U.S. will ever evict the millions of legal immigrants who have already arrived.

That leaves the final question about immigration policy: Of the many who hope to come, how shall the U.S. choose which to accept? Admissions fall into two categories—normal immigrants and refugees—and each presents painful choices.

In addition to changing the ethnic mix among immigrants, the reforms of 1965 placed a higher value on family reunification. Before, under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, skilled workers had an advantage in qualifying for admission. Since 1965, potential immigrants have been considered in three tiers. First come the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, defined as spouses, children under twenty-one, or parents of citizens over twenty-one, who are admitted without limit.

Next come less immediate relatives, who have first claim within the annual ceilings of 20,000 immigrants per country and 270,000 from the entire world. Places within these "numerically limited" categories are assigned according to six preference categories, four of which are for relatives. First preference is for unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens; second for spouses and unmarried children of permanent-resident aliens; fourth for married children of U.S. citizens; and fifth for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. Together, these members of the extended family accounted for 190,000 of the numerically limited admissions in 1978.

Finally, there are immigrants without family ties to the United States, who, as a whole, have far bleaker chances of admission. Some qualify for third preference, professionals and people of "exceptional ability in the sciences or the arts"; otherwise they are relegated to sixth preference, workers in occupations with labor shortages, or to "non-preference," which is everyone else. In 1978, some 14,000 occupational-preference immigrants were admitted, along with their spouses and children, 16,000 in number. Only 54,000 people were admitted as non-preference immigrants or through "private bills," special legislation admitting immigrants one by one.

A sane immigration policy would continue the emphasis on reuniting immediate families. It is harder to see the justification for devoting so much of the limited quotas to members of the extended family. Admissions systems are inevitably arbitrary, but this is more so than most. It bestows benefits on certain families simply because an uncle or a cousin managed to immigrate in the past. It closes the door on the classic immigrant, the independent man or woman who sets out to make a new life. As of 1980, Mexico had a backlog of 173,000 non-preference visa applications; worldwide, 280,000 non-preference applications were pending. They will be considered only after the 807,000 preference-category applications are handled—which is to say, never. In recognition of this imbalance, and in an attempt to open the door to new "seed immigrants," the Select Commission proposed reducing the quotas for the extended family and increasing them for independent immigrants. Why not follow the logic to its conclusion? Keep the places for immediate family members, and open the rest of the queue to independent immigrants.

Refugees and applicants for political asylum present the most painful choices of all. The 1965 Immigration Act reserved 6 percent, or 17,400 per year, of the numerically limited visas for refugees. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the annual limit was raised to 50,000. But that law also gave the President enormous leeway in admitting refugees, and in fiscal years 1980 and 1981 President Carter determined that more than 200,000 refugees should be accepted, specifying a ceiling of 168,000 each year from Indochina and 33,000 from the Soviet Union.

If the major enforcement problem for the INS is stopping Mexican immigrants at the border, its major administrative problem is handling the claims for refugee status and political asylum filed by Haitians and Salvadorans. Almost none of the claims have been approved; fewer than one hundred Salvadorans, for example, have been granted asylum.

One technical obstacle to the Haitian and Salvadoran claims is that the Refugee Act of 1980 applies only to those who have already fled their homeland for some country of first asylum other than the United States. "Vietnamese in Thailand is eligible, but a Haitian who lands in Miami is not. He may apply for political asylum, but he must prove, like candidates for refugee status, that he is "unable or unwilling" to go home "because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." In principle, this might be read to include almost anyone subject to the generalized oppression of Third World governments. In practice, it covers almost anyone who wants to leave the Soviet Union or its satellites, including Cuba, and precious few others besides the Indochinese.

The stories told by Haitian and Salvadoran "refugees" lack the crisp distinctions implied by the law. A few give convincing testimony that specific revenge awaits them if they go home. A larger number say that life there would be worse than it is in the United States. They are, of course, correct; and that is the ugly reality of our refugee policy. Most of the world's population lives under some kind of repression. Even though America's upraised torch of liberty is the noblest part of its role in the world, the U.S. cannot provide a new home for all of the oppressed. To whom, then, should it offer shelter?

The policy would seem less arbitrary if it were more narrowly focused. The United States should accept as refugees those who have been political prisoners or have been singled out for persecution. In addition, we have a special responsibility in situations like Vietnam's, in which our policies have directly affected foreigners' lives. (Some who advocate asylum for Salvadorans say that the same reasoning should apply there, because of past and present U.S. influence in that country.) For the rest, the U.S. should make more room in its overall immigration quotas, offering a less arbitrary chance to the millions around the world who hope for a better life and who could, in unexpected ways, make our lives better too.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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