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.
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Debate over Immigration Policy at an Impasse

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Debate over Immigration Policy at an Impasse

Debate over Immigration Policy at an Impasse

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some people who want to change immigration laws are starting to think they'd rather keep them the same - no change. It's starting to look better to them than some changes that are possible. That's the backdrop this week as the Senate prepares for an immigration showdown.

The majority leader, Harry Reid, says he will force a debate. He'll do that even though months of negotiation produced no bipartisan bill. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on why people on either side of this issue may not mind.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Proposals in the House and Senate are chock full of enforcement measures Jessica Vaughan would love to see passed. 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'll 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.

Ms. JESSICA VAUGHAN (Center for Immigration Studies): 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 I.D. number, to get themselves a mortgage - that's what's going to cause people to give up and go home on their own.

LUDDEN: It's virtually impossible to say how many immigrants may be up and 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 on to an Internet program to scan their payroll for false Social Security numbers.

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

Representative KEN CALVERT (Republican, California): Fifty employers a day signed MOU's to get onto the Basic Pilot program. This 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.

LUDDEN: This will no doubt 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 chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, Zoe Lofgren, points out that Congress uses Basic Pilot, and the program wrongly disqualified her aide, a long-time U.S. citizen.

Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California): 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. 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.

LUDDEN: Immigrant advocates like Christina Lopez of the Center for Community Change have no doubt stiffer enforcement will continue. Lopez points out 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.

Ms. CHRISTINA LOPEZ (Center for Community Change): So we're going to see more families torn apart, more people dying at the border still trying to cross; it's going to be greater suffering, more hardship on the millions who are already here.

LUDDEN: 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 fine for gaining legal status.

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

Ms. LOPEZ: They have families. They have children. In many cases they have property. You know, they're just going to look for another way to make it.

LUDDEN: No one may like the current dysfunctional immigration system. But so far there's only bickering over Congress's efforts to change it.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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