Debate over Immigration Policy at an Impasse

After months of negotiations, Congress appears no closer to a consensus on an overhaul of immigration policy. But competing interests are starting to agree that leaving the dysfunctional system unchanged for now might not be the worst idea.

For example, the proposals in the House and Senate are full of enforcement measures that Jessica Vaughan would love to see pass.

She's with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to reduce immigration.

But the congressional bills would also legalize millions of undocumented workers, something Vaughan opposes.

So, if that's the option, she will be just as happy to stick with the status quo.

Vaughan says the current atmosphere has evolved dramatically in recent years, even without congressional action. She sees a policy she's long advocated playing out de-facto — it's called "attrition through enforcement."

"If we can induce people to go home on their own because they can't get a job, or can't get a driver's license, or can't get a tax ID number, to get themselves a mortgage, that's what's gonna cause people to give up and go home on their own," Vaughan said.

It's virtually impossible to say how many immigrants are leaving on their own. But in recent years the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has exponentially increased workplace raids.

Spurred by this, more businesses are scrambling to check employees' legal status. In the past two years, some 20,000 firms have signed onto an Internet program to scan their payroll for false Social Security numbers.

At a recent Congressional hearing, Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican, said a record 16,000 companies now use another federal computer program, Basic Pilot.

Calvert recently said that 50 employers a day are signing on to Basic Pilot and predicted use of the program will double in the next year.

"We have several large employers, I mean by large, mega-employers, that are looking on putting this program on voluntarily," Calvert said.

This no doubt will mean more illegal workers weeded from payrolls. But in the absence of congressional legislation, it will also mean more mistakes.

Critics say Basic Pilot has a worrisome error rate, something immigration bills try to address. The head of the House immigration subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, points out that Congress uses Basic Pilot. And the program wrongly disqualified her aide, a longtime U.S. citizen.

"It took her seven days, three trips to the Social Security office, three trips to the House employment office, three trips to the Judiciary Committee," Lofgren said. "She was successful in getting this straightened out, but I am mindful that there are people who are not immigration lawyers, who might actually give up."

Immigrant advocates like Christina Lopez, of the Center for Community Change, have no doubt stiffer enforcement will continue.

Lopez points out that many states and localities are also taking it upon themselves to crack down. She says if Congress does nothing, there will be a terrible human impact.

"So we're going to see more families torn apart, more people dying at the border," she said. "It's going to be greater suffering, more hardship, on the millions who are already here."

And yet, Lopez says it's better to endure this a while longer, than to pass some of the harsher measures lawmakers are considering.

For example, one proposal out of the White House would scale back the number of family members that could join immigrants here. It would also impose a $10,000 dollar fine for gaining legal status.

In the meantime, Lopez dismisses the notion that illegal immigrants will stage a mass voluntary departure.

"They have families, they have children, in many cases they have property," she said. "You know, they're just gonna look for another way to make it."

No one may like the current dysfunctional immigration system, but so far, there's only bickering over congressional efforts to change it.

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