Senate Immigration Plan Means Much Paperwork

The Senate's version of an immigration bill would give millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States a chance to become citizens. Can the INS handle the amount of paperwork it would create?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, a disrupted school year ends in Louisiana, but first, the Senate and House are gearing up for a bruising test of wills over illegal immigration. They must now reconcile two vastly different pieces of legislation, a House bill that focuses on enforcement only, and a Senate bill, passed this week, that toughens border security but would also legalize millions of undocumented workers. Congress is bitterly divided over that provision, but if it eventually becomes law, and those on all sides agree on this, it would be a nightmare to implement. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

As Senators tie themselves into knots to avoid anything that smacked of that dreaded word amnesty, they came up with this messy formula. The estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country would be divided into three groups. Those here five years and more could get citizenship. Those here two to five years would have to leave briefly at some point, then sign up as a guest worker. Those here less than two years would get nothing and must leave the country.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Migration Policy Institute): You can see how it has the earmarks of a political compromise, but from an implementation standpoint, it's essentially unworkable.

LUDDEN: Doris Meissner is a former head of the Immigration Agency, now with the Migration Policy Institute. She says, in addition to figuring out how long someone's been here, the Department of Homeland Security would have to determine that someone had worked a certain number of days over a certain period of time. Meissner says it would be extremely labor intensive.

Ms. MEISSNER: That means that you would have armies, really, you'd have to have very large numbers of decision makers, adjudicators, looking at every case, at all kinds of documents that people submit. And these, of course, are people who have been in some degree of subterfuge, so they're not going to have all kinds of documents to bring forward.

LUDDEN: But of course that doesn't mean they wouldn't be able to buy some. In 1986, when Congress amnestied nearly 3 million immigrants, immigration officials say they saw every kind of fraud, including documents made to look old and fake postage marks. Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA has no doubt counterfeiters are already at work, guided by the operative dates in the Senate bill. She also worries about internal corruption at the agency that will handle any legalization, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (NumbersUSA): This will be a big moneymaker for corrupt USCIS employees. You know, they're going to be able to extort money from aliens who don't necessarily qualify for the amnesty, and they'll make a mint.

LUDDEN: This spring, a former USCIS employee testified to Congress that the agency was rife with fraud, including bribery and money laundering. The government accountability office found there were not adequate internal controls to detect and sanction fraud. Citizenship and Immigration Director Emilio Gonzalez says he is taking action to address all of this. As a Latino from Miami, Gonzalez says he knows people will do whatever it takes to be in America.

Dr. EMILIO GONZALEZ (Director, US Citizenship and Immigration Services): I come from a part of a country where dead bodies wash up on shore from people trying to get here, and I'm not being flip, dead bodies wash up on shore. So that there's fraud out there, I assume there is. Is this something that's rampant, and something we don't have a handle on? I think that's probably going a bit too far.

LUDDEN: Yet Gonzalez does say this Senate bill sets a near impossible deadline, just 90 days to run background checks on 10 million or so immigrants who are here and would seek to become legal.

The Immigration Agency also has such a backlog of cases already, Gonzalez has suggested the only way it could handle a legalization and guest worker program would be to contract out the work. But both Doris Meister and Rosemary Jenks say that would only mean an even greater risk for fraud, inefficiency and mistakes.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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