Many Californians were deeply disappointed when a federal judge struck down most provisions of Proposition 187, the popularly approved ballot initiative that sought to restrict access by illegal immigrants to public services and benefits. The same sense of frustration about the government's unwillingness to correct a failed immigration policy, which led to Proposition 187 in the first place, re-emerged when a single judge overruled the will of 59 percent of the electorate.
Even though Proposition 187 has not yet succeeded in its immediate and stated objectives, it has accomplished something far greater. Last year's vote in California caught the attention of Congress and set in motion the first real effort to reform our immigration policies in three decades. Whatever the final outcome of the legal battle over the initiative, Proposition 187 has put immigration policy on the national political agenda.
The legislation currently before Congress and the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform present us with the opportunity to shift the venue and the focus of the immigration debate to where it properly belongs. The debate is now centered in Washington and is focused on policy reform, including a re-examination of the legal immigration process.
Powerless to do anything about immigration policy, which is a federal matter, California voters by necessity were forced to deal with the symptoms of the federal government's failure by refusing to pay for services for the large numbers of illegal immigrants living in the state. Because the focus became the immigrants themselves rather than immigration policy, the campaign got ugly.
The comprehensive immigration reform legislation that is working its way through both houses of Congress represents a constructive culmination of a process that began nearly two years ago in supermarket parking lots and shopping malls all across California. These bills not only offer mechanisms for more effective control of illegal immigration; they also propose changes in legal immigration, which is actually a bigger problem.
The two bills, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., would begin to rectify some of the policy failures that have propelled illegal and legal immigration to unprecedented levels. These bills would institute the kind of common sense reforms that the vast majority of Americans support and would go a long way toward defusing immigration as a hot button issue.
To combat illegal immigration, the government would institute a secure identification procedure that would allow employers and benefit-providers to verify instantly whether an applicant is entitled to work or collect benefits. By giving law-abiding employers an effective means of screening out unlawful workers, the primary magnet that draws illegal immigrants to this country would be sharply curtailed.
Even more important in the long run is the Smith/Simpson proposal to reduce legal immigration. Thirty years of steadily increasing admissions, now running nearly 1-million people a year, is having a greater impact on our country than our failure to control our borders. The Smith/Simpson reforms would begin to reverse that trend by instituting a modest 25 percent reduction in overall numbers. Moreover, they would relieve the pressure on the system by ending immigration preferences for extended family members. To the extent that we have immigration at all, it must be limited to the nuclear family. The promise that entire extended families can be reunited in this country is unrealistic and denies the nation control over the selection process. The legislation would also require immigrants' sponsors to assume financial responsibility for these newcomers, not the American taxpayer.
Had Congress made these changes to our immigration policy when the rumblings of popular discontent began, a referendum like Proposition 187 never would have been necessary. Belatedly, Congress is beginning to defuse an issue that has been complicated by years of neglect.
Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington.
Special to the Los Angeles Times