1998 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

In the year since the Center for Immigration Studies inaugurated the Katz Award, the coverage of immigration appears to have become more sophisticated and nuanced. This was most apparent in the remarkably balanced reporting of the debate over increasing the number of H-1B temporary visas for skilled workers and the debate within the Sierra Club over a referendum on including a call for immigration cuts in the club's position on population stabilization. Despite these signs of improvement, there is still too much simplistic and uninformed reporting on this issue, underlining the continuing need for the Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration.

Marcus Stern of the Copley News Service is this year's honoree. His outstanding November 1997 series in The San Diego Union-Tribune, was a clear-eyed, insightful look at the role employment plays in promoting illegal immigration. His reporting on the ground — at a chicken plant in North Carolina — put a human face on the geographic spread of illegal immigration without succumbing to human-interest exoticism. And his reporting in Washington shone a bright light on the inordinate role special-interest groups play in shaping immigration policy.

But Stern has earned the Katz Award for more than this series. His day-to-day coverage of the immigration beat exhibits a mastery of all aspects of policymaking on this issue that is unmatched in Washington or anywhere else in the country. He has written knowledgeably and perceptively on border enforcement, citizenship, budget issues, agricultural guestworkers, the importation of software engineers, detention, and so on. His ability to provide context for difficult stories, to engage academic students of the issue, and to maintain a healthy skepticism when dealing with government officials and lobbyists sets a standard which others, regardless of their beat, should aspire to.

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director
Center for Immigration Studies
September 1998

Marcus Stern Articles

1. (Part I of series)

2. Filner is only local lawmaker who opposes plan to deny undocumented migrants jobs

3. Debate in Senate shows states disagree on immigration issues

4. Low-skill labor markets full of illegal workers,
but employers are seldom fined

5. Labor contractors contribute to illegal immigration's spread throughout U.S.

6. Legislators put focus on fences, not jobs (Part II of Series)

7. Illegal-immigration bill weakened by unlikely alliance (Part III of Series)

8. Labor-union split helps kill worker-verification proposal

(Part I of Series)
By Marcus Stern

Editors Note: For illegal immigrants, work is plentiful. Not just in California, but now in the Midwest, the Northeast and the South. Powerful forces in Washington want it this way. And Congress knows it. A three-part series that begins today examines the hidden agendas and political intrigue that continue to shape America's immigration policy.

MORGANTON, N.C. — Luis Alberto Gonzalez's job hunt led him from his hometown in the rugged highlands of Guatemala to the pastoral Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Most of the 500 people who cut up chickens alongside him at the Case Farms poultry plant are Guatemalan. Many entered the country as he did — illegally.

After the Guatemalan workers started arriving in 1990, the plant's traditional work force of low-skilled African-Americans faded quietly into the community.

"They brought in all these Guatemalan and Mexican workers because they figured they'd work for nothing," recalled Katherine Harbison, 33, a black worker whose first job after high school was at the plant. "The supervisors treated the American workers real bad to give them a reason to quit. Most of them did."

What has happened at Case Farms and in the once-sleepy town of Morganton is happening in other small towns across America.

Undocumented foreign workers, feeding eagerly on the economic crumbs of America's vast and lightly regulated low-skill labor markets, have pushed far beyond their traditional destinations in California, Texas and Florida.

In Storm Lake, Iowa, and Garden City, Kan., legal and illegal immigrants attracted to meat-packing plants have transformed the ethnic makeup of quintessential Midwestern communities. On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the availability of jobs at poultry plants has turned Georgetown, Del., into a Guatemalan outpost. And in Dalton, Ga., the carpet plants have drawn thousands of workers from Mexico.

Even though the nation's border enforcement laws have been overhauled twice in 11 years and the immigration service budget doubled in five, the nation's undocumented population continues rising each year by 275,000, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The newcomers are hired as parking lot attendants, janitors, housekeepers, dishwashers, construction workers and factory workers. Those jobs that have historically offered low-skilled Americans and legal immigrants a first step into the middle class now also are being held by undocumented workers.

The flow continues partly because of the nation's mixed attitude toward these people. The U.S. government builds barriers at the border and hires guards to keep them out, but once they're here U.S. businesses offer them jobs. There is no sign that either Congress or President Clinton is deeply troubled by this contradiction.

This year, however, a new factor could sharpen the debate. Millions of people have begun losing their benefits under last year's overhaul of the nation's welfare laws. And many of the jobs they might have sought three decades ago now are held by undocumented workers.

"Employers view (undocumented) immigrants as more manageable and therefore less likely to complain," said Roger Waldinger, a sociologist at UCLA who has studied job displacement of low-skilled African-Americans by immigrant workers. "There's also racial prejudice involved. Some employers would rather not hire black workers."

A National Academy of Sciences study this year found that low-skill native-born Americans lose out when they face competition from large numbers of new immigrants in local labor markets.

"Some have argued that African-Americans have suffered disproportionately from immigration," James P. Smith, a member of the research panel, told Congress. "Certainly some blacks have lost their jobs — especially in places where immigrants are concentrated. But the majority of black Americans live elsewhere and their economic fortunes are tied to other factors."

For centuries that was true. But it isn't so anymore in a growing number of communities in the rural South, including impoverished parts of Mississippi. For low-skill African-Americans living in Morganton, the labor market started changing seven years ago when someone began scouring the Florida citrus fields for Guatemalan and Mexican workers to bring back to Case Farms.

Now many local blacks, descendants of slaves and victims of racist Jim Crow laws, find themselves facing a new adversity. They are competing directly with foreign workers, including many who are in the country illegally.

Influx of immigrants

In Morganton, Alberto is part of an exploding population of new legal and illegal foreign-born residents who have settled in this Appalachian town of 18,000. The recent influx of thousands of Hispanics — mostly Guatemalans — has transformed the ethnic composition of the late Sen. Sam Ervin's hometown.

When Ervin left Congress in 1974, even a single Guatemalan in town would have been a novelty. By 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau found 344 Hispanics living in Morganton and surrounding Burke County. Seven years later unofficial estimates run as high as 10,000.

There is still disagreement and confusion here over how Case Farms switched so quickly from employing poor African-American workers to poor Guatemalans.

John Vail, former executive director of Catawba Valley Legal Services, remembered getting a call in about 1991 from a nun in Immokalee, Fla., a rural town where migrant workers from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America gather looking for work.

A man had arrived in a van. He wanted to take Guatemalans back to work at Case Farms, the nun told Vail. Company officials deny sending the man or recruiting workers directly. But they do acknowledge paying a finder's fee for each new worker delivered to the plant.

Phyllis Palmieri also became aware of the shift about the same time. She was working as a legal services attorney in Morganton when several black workers came to her office and said they had been fired and replaced by Hispanics. They called it discrimination.

In a brief interview, Ken Wilson, human relations manager at Case Farms, said the company regularly checks the work permits of its foreign workers to ensure they're still valid. But workers said the company checked the documents earlier this year for the first time since mid-1995. The company does it to intimidate them, not to keep them off the payroll, several undocumented workers said.

Wilson refused to let a reporter enter the plant to observe its operation. He didn't return subsequent phone calls from the reporter. Some Hispanics earn extra money by driving to Florida and bringing back workers for Case Farms, said Daniel Gutierrez, who is active in Morganton's immigrant community. For each recruit, they collect $100 from the worker and $50 from the company, he said.

"If you give an employer a choice between illegal immigrants and low-skill, native-born workers, they're going to choose illegal aliens every time because many of them don't see the wages as being low," said Cornell University immigration expert Vernon Briggs. "They don't understand labor law in the United States so they don't think they're being exploited. Or if they do know they are, there's not much they can do about it, given their illegal status."

Guatemalan poverty

Alberto, like many Case Farms workers, is from the rural Guatemalan town of Huehuetenango (pronounced way-way-ta-nango). During the early 1980s it was the site of nightmarish political violence. The killings ended years ago, but the poverty endures.

Today, children living in the thatched-roof huts of Huehuetenango eat better because of the paychecks distributed on the factory floor at Case Farms. Like the other Guatemalan workers, Alberto earns about $54 a day, far more than the $3 he said he'd earn in Guatemala.

But the illegal workers pay dearly for this opportunity. Entering the United States through its "back door" is undignified, inhumane and fraught with danger. Once here, they remain vulnerable to exploitation.

Alberto initially slipped into Mexico hoping to make a living. But things didn't work out. Three years ago, he sneaked across the U.S. border at Nogales, Ariz., and rode in a smugglers van to the sweltering citrus fields of south Florida. He boarded yet another van to get to Morganton.

He arrived safely. But others sneaking into the country have drowned in the rain-flooded Tijuana River, frozen in the mountains of San Diego's East County or died of dehydration in the Arizona desert. Some are dropped nameless into paupers' graves in Texas border towns like Brownsville.

As many as 3,200 undocumented immigrants died along the Texas-Mexico border between 1985 and 1994, according to a study last year by the University of Houston. Most of them drowned in the Rio Grande. More recent research found that at least 1,185 crossers died along the entire U.S.-Mexico border between 1993 and 1996.

A growing number die on the nation's highways because the smugglers sometimes drive trucks or vans unfit for the road. Some don't know how to drive in winter weather. Others crash after going too long without sleep, or because they use alcohol or other drugs.

Those who survive the journey work hard and scared. Benefits such as health care, overtime, holidays and vacations are sporadic. They may face a mandatory 70-hour workweek, unjustified firing, petty indignities and other forms of harassment.

Union organizing

At Case Farms, workers get $6.85 an hour. Health benefits begin after three months. They get a week of vacation and five paid holidays a year. What they don't get, they say, are safe and dignified working conditions. That's why Cases Farms' employees voted in 1995 to form a union. The company so far hasn't entered into negotiations and many of the workers' complaints persist.

They say rapid, repetitive movements hour after hour can lead to debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. The plant's strong odor permeates their skin and clothes. The plant is cold and its floors sometimes become dangerously slippery with chicken grease. The company has made some improvements, workers say, but turnover rates remain extremely high. Case Farms, like most other poultry plants, needs a constant supply of new workers.

At 21, Jose Luis Hernandez still has the delicate features of a boy. The Guatemalan slipped across the border into Nogales, Ariz., traveled to Morganton and went right to work cutting chicken shoulders, the toughest job on the line, he said.

Chickens passed in front of him at the rate of 28 per minute. Each time, he made the same slicing motion with his right hand. Within months, his wrist became sore. But the company doctor told him it was a problem from birth and he was ordered back on the line, he said.

"I asked for a different job but they wouldn't move me," he said.

As Luis Hernandez talked, he held out his right wrist and twisted it. It crackled and bones could be felt shifting in a grotesque fashion just under his skin.

Why do he and the others put up with such treatment?

Many of them aren't legally authorized to work, so if they make a fuss, they can be fired with impunity, he said. The legal status of others is hazy. The company checked their documents, the workers said. But they freely admit many of these documents are forgeries and some valid work permits have expired. Even those who are in the country legally tend to feel they have little recourse in a strange land.

Domingo Lopez Francisco, 43, said he was one of the first Guatemalans in Morganton. He was working in Florida when a man approached him about a job at Case Farms in 1992. He went right to work de-boning thighs. He has worked there off and on for five years.

When Lopez Francisco arrived for a meeting with a reporter, he was upset. He held out his hands to reveal an ornate lattice of thin scars left by several years of cutting up chickens in the plant. He had just been fired.

Why? he was asked. "I threw a piece of bone on the floor," he said.

Officials at Case Farms did not return phone calls to discuss the incident.

Late one night, one of Morganton's Hispanic residents, who asked not to be identified, steered his car over the ruts of an unpaved trailer park on the side of the road just beyond town. His headlights danced up and down as the car bounced slowly among the trailers, illuminating their drab, mud-splattered exteriors. Fallen curtains exposed disheveled interiors.

In one trailer, a group of men from Mexico drank beer.

Prostitutes visit the park, the driver explained. So does a man selling phony immigration documents.

For Hispanic workers, living on the tattered fringe of Morganton often takes an emotional toll. They are far from home and family and the language and ways are unfamiliar. Some end up feeling a greater kinship with the chickens than their American bosses and neighbors, said Gutierrez.

"There's no difference between Hispanics and the chickens," said Gutierrez, one of the first Latinos in Morganton. He came seven years ago from Mexico to teach Spanish to American children. Now, he teaches English to children from Guatemala.

"Last week, a trailer rolled over and one thousand chickens died," he said.

"The plant bosses didn't hold a funeral. Nobody grieved. They just went out and got more chickens. They're the same with Hispanics."

Language barrier

In Morganton, local officials are wrestling with their community's sudden need for interpreters in the courts and police department and for bilingual teachers for the schools. The problem is compounded because many of the workers and their children speak Mayan dialects instead of Spanish — and quite a few are illiterate even in those. The community has scrambled to find housing and provide medical care for the newcomers. Many are packed into trailers and public housing units.

Still, Morganton's longtime residents see the newcomers as a boon rather than a burden. Unemployment is relatively low in their town, and these newcomers work hard. They also buy potato chips and used Pontiacs and their purchases help the economy grow.

Tensions can flare over little things like loud music at night. Newcomers sometimes drive without valid permits and fail to follow traffic laws.

But even low-income African-Americans who are unemployed express little resentment. Some say the jobs aren't worth fighting for. Working conditions at the plant are just too bleak.

Jimmy Jacumin, head of the county commission, has a reputation for speaking his mind about the newcomers. He argues against hiring interpreters for the court because he believes the immigrants need to learn to speak English. But he, too, sees economic opportunity in these people who have traveled so far to improve their lives.

"They'll lift everybody else, too," he said.

Growing immigrant networks

The diaspora of undocumented workers across America has made the task of stopping the flow more daunting today than it was a generation ago, before modern transportation shrunk the world and mass media raised expectations in less prosperous lands. Today, immigrant networks reach deep into the American heartland and sophisticated smuggling operations crisscross the country with the help of the Internet, 1-800-numbers, fleets of vans, CB radios and cellular phones.

A landmark 1986 law was supposed to stop the flow by making it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented workers, but it's never been vigorously enforced. The undocumented population has risen steadily since then, surpassing 5 million last October, the INS estimates. An additional 2 million or so are constantly rotating in and out of the country doing seasonal work.

At El Chapala, a Mexican restaurant in Morganton, a group of Case Farms workers swapped stories over dinner about sneaking across the border. A passing waiter, overhearing the conversation, yelled out in Spanish that he'd crossed in Nogales, Ariz., just two weeks earlier. No problem, he said. Nor did he have trouble getting from the desert border to the verdant foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains.

The INS office nearest Morganton is 90 minutes away. But during the past seven years, as the town has gone through its bewildering ethnic transformation, no INS agent has visited Case Farms.

If ignoring the flow of undocumented workers hurts anyone, it hurts those at the bottom of the economy, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences study. Illegal workers compete with legal workers living in the same area, it concluded. These findings reflect the situation in Morganton.

"If an American goes in and applies for a job and a Guatemalan goes in after him, they're going to hire the Guatemalan before they hire the American," said Harbison, the former Case worker.

For those African-Americans living in poverty who once worked at the plant, the new welfare law could be yet another turn of the screw. If the law cuts their benefits in an effort to push them into the job market, they needn't bother to apply at Case Farms.

Those jobs are taken.


Filner is only local lawmaker who opposes plan
to deny undocumented migrants jobs
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — With the exception of Bob Filner, all of San Diego County's federal lawmakers support pilot projects designed to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs in the United States.

Last year, when the House was overhauling the nation's immigration laws, the San Diego Democrat was the only local lawmaker to vote against the pilot projects.

Supporting them were Republicans Brian Bilbray of Imperial Beach, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Escondido, Duncan Hunter of El Cajon and Ron Packard of Carlsbad.

Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, also supported the pilot projects in the Senate.

Filner, explaining his opposition to the pilot projects, echoed a theme articulated by many critics during the House debate: the difficulty in undoing mistakes in the system.

"Have you ever tried to get hold of MasterCard or Visa on a problem? You can't do it," he said.

But experts say a reliable system is feasible in this era of debit cards, smart cards, credit cards and ATMs.

"When we looked at verification in 1980 and 1981, the technology for doing a really good job just wasn't available," said Susan Martin, executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "But that's no longer the case."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service already has started a purely voluntary pilot project in Los Angeles and is getting positive results. The INS in San Diego is pushing a similar program.

"The INS has made it very user friendly," said Virginia Valadez, human resources manager for Santa Ana-based GT Bicycles, which has about 430 employees and has taken part in the project since October 1995. "It takes minutes and sometimes just seconds to operate it. And if I ever have any problem, I have a number I can call."

Filner isn't convinced.

"I'm not prepared to risk the damage to the innocents to capture a few guilty ones right now," he said.


Debate in Senate shows states disagree on immigration issues
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — When the Senate Judiciary Committee debated illegal immigration last year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein found herself at odds with several of her colleagues.

Patrick Leahy was one.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, wanted an employment verification system set up as soon as possible. Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, didn't.

Feinstein wanted aggressive steps to tackle document fraud. Leahy helped block them.

The opposing views of Leahy and Feinstein — one from the state with possibly the nation's smallest population of illegal immigrants and the other from the state with undoubtedly the largest — show how divided Congress is over how to go about stopping illegal immigration.

Leahy's Vermont is a bucolic, sparsely populated state where the population is almost entirely native-born and where the number of illegal residents was estimated at 100 in 1995.

Feinstein comes from a sprawling mega-state where the resident undocumented population is estimated at 2 million with an additional million or so constantly rotating through the state looking for temporary work. California taxpayers spend billions of dollars each year on education, medical care and incarceration costs associated with the undocumented population.

"I'll never forget the first vote in (the Judiciary) committee," Feinstein recalled. "I was amazed to see that what we had on the committee was in essence a group of people who really didn't want to do anything" about curbing illegal immigration.

The political calculus makes dramatic change unlikely.

"There are only seven states that really have major immigration problems," she said. "And that's one of the areas where it weakens reform because the senators of states that don't have the problems really fall victim to the lobbying efforts of the interest groups."

The seven states are California, Illinois, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Arizona.


Low-skill labor markets full of illegal workers,
but employers are seldom fined
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — Illegal immigrants helped fix the tarmac where President Clinton's helicopter is parked. They tended the spacious lawns around Vice President Al Gore's official residence. They worked on sports venues for the Olympics in Atlanta and helped build the Washington Redskins' new stadium.

The degree to which undocumented workers have penetrated low-skill labor markets across the country is spelled out in records of immigration arrests during the past two years.

But few of the employers hit in raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service have been heavily penalized. Fines are supposed to range from $250 to $2,000 per worker -- and even jail for multiple offenders. But fines seldom are levied.

Immigration officials say it's almost impossible to prove an employer has knowingly hired an undocumented worker because the workers have such easy access to phony documents. Fines frequently are merely for paperwork violations. Last year's immigration legislation didn't fix the problem.

"You can buy a packet with a Social Security card and (green card) right now on the street for about $50 or $75, one sufficient for an employer to use as verification," said Richard Rogers, head of the INS in Los Angeles.

An attempt at reform in 1986 didn't require employers to check the validity of documents. They only have to sign statements saying they have no reason to believe they are phony.

Undocumented workers also now trawl for cod on U.S. boats off the coast of Alaska, shuck oysters on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, weave carpets in Georgia, pick apples in the Shenandoah Valley and cultivate mushrooms in Pennsylvania.

When private garbage haulers struck this year in Omaha, Neb., more than half the strike-breakers hired by the company turned out to be illegal.

When immigration agents raided 300 plants in six Southern states in 1995, they arrested a total of 4,044 undocumented workers.

A sweep of six carpet mills in Dalton, Ga., netted 102 illegal workers.

A month-long check of eastbound interstate traffic in Colorado last year netted almost 1,300 undocumented immigrants from 86 vehicle stops.

"A lot of aliens we catch are on their way to the East Coast," said Craig Weinbrenner, a Border Patrol agent stationed in Little Rock, Ark.


Labor contractors contribute to
illegal immigration's spread throughout U.S.
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — Philip Moran considered himself a labor contractor. But federal authorities called him an immigrant smuggler and sent him to prison.

The Arkansan had a sweet racket, according to court documents.

He gave out his toll-free number in ads aired on Spanish-language radio stations along the southwest border so Mexicans and others hoping to work in the United States could reach him at his home in Arkansas.

Then he mailed them phony green cards and other documents and arranged transportation to get them to jobs in one of 12 states, including dairy farms in Mississippi, according to government documents. Moran charged the employers a $200 to $300 finder's fee for each recruit, and the workers paid $250 to $350 for each set of phony documents, the government documents state.

Labor contractors like Moran are a main reason that illegal immigration has spread well beyond its traditional boundaries in California, Texas and Florida, experts say.

"The fact that farm labor contractors have moved out of farming and into related industries in rural areas is a factor making it easier for people in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to access jobs here.

"Most of these guys see themselves as providing a service," said David Griffith, an anthropologist at East Carolina University who has studied the role of contractors in illegal immigration. "They see themselves as taking advantage of a niche."

Once contractors show the way, immigrant networks take over.

"Sometimes it takes a contractor to get it started and after awhile the word is out that the jobs are there," said Robert Williams, an attorney with Florida Legal Services in Tallahassee.

"After that, they don't have to do much recruiting."


(Part II of Series)
Legislators put focus on fences, not jobs
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — Last year, Congress quietly made a crucial choice in its battle to stem illegal immigration. It decided to hire more border guards and build more fences, rather than try to keep undocumented immigrants from getting jobs once they're in the United States.

The choice was precisely the opposite of what immigration commissions have been recommending for decades. But it allowed the lawmakers to appear responsive to voter concerns about illegal immigration without upsetting powerful special-interest groups.

The reluctance of Congress — and successive presidents — to seriously tackle the jobs magnet is rooted in one of the grim realities of electoral politics: Politicians are afraid to defy business lobbyists and influential blocs of voters.

"The people who take advantage of the weakness in the law want to maintain that weakness," said former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a longtime member of the Senate's immigration subcommittee.

"You have some within the immigrant community who basically don't really want to slow down illegal immigration.While they would not admit it, clearly they don't want to see anything that stems the tide of Hispanics or Poles or Irish coming into the country.

"And you have employer groups who are making money off of these illegal immigrants, and they don't want to see any kind of real sanction there. The combination is enough to make it difficult to pass legislation."

But since 1951, one immigration commission after another has told Congress that jobs fuel illegal immigration.

"Reducing the employment magnet is the linchpin of a comprehensive strategy to reduce illegal immigration," the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded in a September 1994 report.

More specifically, it said, "A computer registry to verify that a Social Security number is valid and has been issued to someone authorized to work in the U.S. is the most promising option for eliminating fraud and reducing discrimination while protecting individual privacy."

The commission said, in essence, "It's the jobs magnet, stupid."

But Congress and President Clinton largely spurned the advice.

Immigration-law showdown

The first real showdown over last year's immigration law came in September 1995 when the House Judiciary Committee approved pilot projects to test whether something as simple as a phone call to the federal government could sharply cut illegal immigration.

Employers would make the toll-free call to verify the Social Security number of every new employee, making it harder for unauthorized workers to get jobs. It was a key to curbing the flow, supporters said.

But later, behind closed doors, House Majority Leader Dick Armey gave other key House Republicans a warning.

The immigration bill would die, the Texas Republican said, unless it was endorsed by small business. And that wouldn't happen if even one employer was required to take part in an employment verification pilot project.

Small businesses are the principal employers of illegal workers.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the bill's main architect, began secret negotiations with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which represents small businesses.

Just before the bill went to the floor, Smith announced that it had been altered to make the pilot projects entirely voluntary for employers. Then the House passed the bill.

Smith had never disclosed Armey's threat or the NFIB's virtual veto-control over the immigration bill.

"So many of the Republican freshmen were elected on planks of being vociferous supporters of small business that when they heard that the National Federation of Independent Business would not be amenable to mandatory verification, they knew they had to do something," said a Republican congressional staffer.

"The leadership lives in mortal fear that something will be done against the interests of small business and it will show up in the form of negative (NFIB) ratings of Republican members at the end of the year."

Armey's little-known election-year threat to scuttle the entire immigration bill because business groups, including the National Restaurant Association, opposed the verification provision was telling. Even though members of Congress frequently use forceful rhetoric in declaring their intention to curb illegal immigration, there are limits to what they're willing to do. Alienating business groups isn't one.

"He's always been opposed to anything that might lead to a national data base," Armey spokeswoman Michelle Davis said in explaining the majority leader's opposition to verification.

But Smith's proposal relied only on existing immigration and Social Security databases.

Verification debate

On the other side of the Capitol grounds, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted its verification debate in March 1996. Sen. Patrick Leahy used the occasion to describe a brush he'd had with the U.S. Border Patrol.

As the Vermont Democrat told it, he was driving about 60 miles from the Canadian border a few years ago when he was stopped at an immigration highway checkpoint. A patrol agent stepped up and asked him to prove he was in the country legally.

Leahy erupted.

"I've never had to prove my citizenship in my own country to anybody and I have no intention of proving it to you," he thundered.

When the agent's superior noticed the senator's VIP license plates, the incident ended. But Leahy's anger endures.

"I'll be damned if I want to have to go out and have to prove to anybody that I'm an American," he said during the verification debate.

As it turned out, Leahy was preaching to the choir.

By the time the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 became law, Congress had gutted the verification proposal. It had agreed to pilot projects, but they would be carefully limited and voluntary for employers.

For those who have followed the nation's long-running debate over illegal immigration for some time, it was a moment of dejá vu. Congress had authorized voluntary pilot projects 10 years earlier — without much result.

"What a pale shadow the new pilot system is of what we recommended," said Larry Fuchs of Brandeis University and the Commission on Immigration Reform. Congress created the commission to provide advice on immigration policy. "You could call it a gutting of it."

Nor did Congress seriously tackle the problem of document fraud.

Lawmakers rejected requirements for tamper-resistant birth certificates and driver's licenses. And they opposed significant increases in the number of labor and immigration work-site inspectors.

Congress did, however, add more Border Patrol agents.

For desperate immigrants, getting in would be tougher. But they would still be lured by the continuing temptation of jobs and eager employers.

"There's a lot of hypocrisy on this issue," Fuchs said.

Jobs draw millions

Jobs continue to draw millions of desperately poor people to the United States. They travel in buses up Mexico's west coast from starting points in the country's impoverished interior, or from farther away in the jungles of Central America. Some land in Baja California Norte crammed into the hulls of rusting trawlers sailing from mainland China. Others fly from Eastern Europe to Mexico City as "tourists" and trek north.

Those who arrive in Tijuana today stare across a 10-foot-high steel fence at a row of Border Patrol vehicles. Beyond the agents, the sprawling U.S. job market beckons like a giant thirsty sponge eager to soak them up.

Because security has been beefed up on the border in San Diego, the crossers have shifted eastward to the rugged outlying mountains and deserts. Already this year, dozens have died in this forbidding landscape, including a young woman whose husband carried her body out in his arms.

For the migrants, the costs of doing business in the United States have always been high. But, with jobs waiting, the flow continues.

The employers aren't altruists

"We get nothing but absolutely glowing reports from the companies about these Hispanics working for them," said Mike McAltin of the Mississippi Poultry Association. "They come in with a great work ethic. They have a real tenacity about working. It's the law that we hire only legal people. And we try to enforce that. But it can be tough."

"They're an employer's dream," said a San Diego employer.

Enforcement difficulty

Lawmakers took their first stab at shrinking the job market for illegal immigrants in 1986 by making it illegal to intentionally hire them. But fraudulent birth certificates, driver's licenses and immigration documents made enforcement impossible because the government couldn't prove employers knew they were hiring illegal workers.

Employers were given no way to check if a Social Security number, driver's license or birth certificate is valid.

"It's easy to pass a law and say, 'Okay, all your workers must be legal,' " said William T. Roenig of the National Broiler Council, a trade group representing chicken plants. "And then someone else says, 'Well, yes, but you can't ask this question, you can't ask that question. And you can't examine the documents beyond whatever or it leads to discrimination.' "

With so much ambiguity, enforcement of the law quickly waned.

"The '86 law is dysfunctional because we didn't want it to work," said Sidney Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We passed legislation (in 1986) that we knew was unworkable because we aren't willing to take the steps of identifying who is an illegal. The (members of Congress) knew that when they did it."

When Congress took up the issue again last year, lawmakers put out a blizzard of press releases proclaiming the bold steps they were taking during an election year. But their releases invariably failed to note Congress' retreat from any kind of verification proposal or document reform.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein implored her colleagues on the Judiciary Committee to approve some sort of system to ensure that birth certificates, driver's licenses and immigration documents are real.

"Gentlemen," the California Democrat said, "as sure as I'm sitting here now, the result of continuation of a non-system, the ostrich-like head-in-the-sand attitude, the constant rejection of any efforts to solve this problem, will produce an Armageddon in the American population in those states where there is a big problem."

Opponents said a worker-eligibility system would infringe on civil liberties and would conflict with America's abhorrence of big government. It would be bad for business and wouldn't work, they said.

"Using a national verification system to stop illegal immigration is to me like trying to fix a wristwatch with a pickax and a sledgehammer," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.)

Feinstein and former Sen. Simon said political pressures sometimes compel lawmakers to pass feel-good legislation. That way, they're able to placate the public without upsetting special interests.

For example, Congress doubled the size of the INS budget over the past five years and hired additional Border Patrol agents. But little has been done to devise a workable verification system and secure documents.

The public doesn't understand the nuances of the complex issue, but the special interests do, said Simon. And they know how to work Congress, build broad coalitions and use the media to assist in their campaigns.

"You face this dilemma from time to time when you're a member of the House or the Senate," he said. "Do you serve the public good when the public at large doesn't really understand the issue? Or do you serve a very small constituency that understands the issue and is going to respond?"


(Part III of Series)
Illegal-immigration bill weakened by unlikely alliance
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — After years of bitter losses, Sen. Alan K. Simpson thought the political tides finally favored his quest to create a way to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs.

The issue had emerged as a hot-button during the 1996 campaign. This time, he would surely defeat the powerful and savvy pro-immigration lobby.

"As I look out on this sea of faces, there are some who have been cutting my bicycle tire for 17 years," the now-retired Wyoming Republican said last year as the Judiciary Committee prepared to debate his proposals. "They're sitting back there, hollow-eyed, twitching like dogs eating peach seeds and wondering if they can do it again. ... Well, I think that game is over."

Simpson was wrong.

Once again, he had sorely underestimated the tenacity and cleverness of special-interest groups determined to preserve the flow of undocumented workers into the United States.

Yes, Congress eventually passed a new immigration law. But it was so weak it would do little to hasten the creation of a system to help employers quickly and reliably verify that the people working for them are in fact eligible to hold jobs in the United States. Such a system is a key to curbing illegal immigration, according to many experts.

The "twitching dogs" who dragged down Simpson's initiative last year are Capitol heavyweights whose coalition on immigration falls into the unlikely bedfellows category. Among them: the National Federation of Independent Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, the Catholic church, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and even some labor unions.

As these special interests swarmed all over Capitol Hill, however, no lobbyist represented millions of legal immigrants and other poor people, who, because of welfare reform, soon might need the low-skill jobs now being held by the rising number of undocumented workers.

"There's no National Association of Working Poor," said Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary during President Clinton's first term. "There's no special-interest lobbying group working on behalf of very poor people trying desperately to find and keep jobs.

"If a politician has to decide between the interests of small businesses seeking inexpensive help and the interests of poor Americans either seeking a job or afraid of losing a job or declining earnings, the chances are very good that the small business has far more clout."

Special-interest clout

The clout displayed last year when the immigration lobby defeated Simpson's plan is a textbook demonstration of how special interests have long dominated immigration policy in Washington.

Simpson wasn't asking for anything remotely like a national ID card or national database of workers. He merely wanted the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 to authorize pilot projects to test methods for verifying employment eligibility.

One pilot would have required participating employers to check their new employees' Social Security numbers. Because it would apply to all of their new workers, discrimination against "foreign-looking" job applicants would have been minimized.

But the anti-verification coalition painted the proposal as a sinister plot. It portrayed it as a retina-scan ID card, police-state power, the second coming of the Holocaust and even the fulfillment of a dark prophecy in the Bible's Book of Revelation that people would be stamped with the "mark of the beast."

At one meeting of the Judiciary Committee, an irritated and clearly frustrated Simpson indignantly waved a make-believe tattoo that looked like a grocery store bar code. He called it a ploy to kill his verification proposal. He was right.

Grover Norquist, a social conservative and anti-tax Republican lobbyist, reveled unapologetically in the tactics he used to undermine the verification initiative and to mock Simpson personally.

The peel-off bar-code tattoos were supposed to remind people of the way Nazis tattooed Jews during World War II.

"It was great," recalled Norquist, who is close to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "We had our guys walking around with tattoos on their arms. It drove Simpson nuts because the implication was he's a Nazi."

The truth, however, is that both the House and the Senate bills specifically barred the implementation of any kind of national ID card. Politicians view such a card as a political kiss of death; nobody expects Congress to seriously consider one.

Toward the end of the debate, Simpson decried the pranks and slurs.

"We have dealt with tattoos and Adolf Hitler," he said. "It is the most offensive thing that I have ever heard. It's disgusting and I'm sick of it."

'Mark of the beast'

Although voters tend to see Republicans as tougher than Democrats on illegal immigration, the weakening of the verification provisions was largely the handiwork of conservative Republicans and their behind-the-scenes strategists like Norquist.

Their success underscores how tough it is for Congress to do the one thing experts have said for decades is central to curbing illegal immigration: Establish a reliable, non-discriminatory employment verification system.

Norquist has strong ties to the business community. Mainstream firms like Microsoft paid him to lobby against other provisions of the bill, such as tighter restrictions on the immigration of computer programmers.

But his forte is mobilizing support among social or moral conservatives, including gun owners, the religious right, home-schooling adherents and others he described as "anti-welfare and anti-police state."

"A government powerful enough to find an illegal immigrant is also powerful enough to find your bank accounts," he said.

Conveniently, he ignores the fact that the government long has been able to find bank accounts with ease while it still can't reliably identify undocumented workers.

"Nobody really minds people sneaking across the border and working at 7-Eleven," he added.

At one point during the debate, congressional offices received calls from fundamentalist ministers around the country asking about rumors that the verification provision would fulfill a prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Was it true, they asked congressional staffers, that people would be stamped with the "mark of the beast" under the new law?

"Six-six-six," Norquist explained matter-of-factly during an interview. "That's always been one of the arguments against the ID card. There's something in Revelations about numbering people. The 'beast' could be a big computer."

The National Rifle Association was told the bill would lead to a federal computer registry that the government could use to hunt down its members and seize their guns.

"Gun owners quite correctly understand that it would take Bill Clinton all of two weeks to add the question, 'Got any guns? Could we have a list of them? Where do you keep them?' " said Norquist.

Verification opponents also circulated mock national identification cards bearing Simpson's likeness. On the back of the cards was a retina scan diagram suggesting that the legislation called for everyone to carry such a card.

"That was a good one," Norquist chuckled.

Anti-verification coalition

Conservatives didn't fight verification alone last year. They were part of a coalition of strange bedfellows involved in civil rights, ethnic and religious advocacy, anti-government politics and free-market ideology. They were also bolstered by powerful business groups.

The coalition was a juggernaut that fought virtually any verification initiative. Because Republicans control Congress, conservative lobbyists were especially influential. The fact that some limited, voluntary verification projects stayed in the bill at all outraged some conservatives.

"I view it as the camel's nose under the tent for a national ID card," said Stephen Moore, an economist with the Cato Institute who lobbied against the bill. "The theme we played to Republicans was that if you're trying to roll back big government, you shouldn't be instituting this new police-state power."

Social conservatives like Norquist and libertarians like Moore don't see illegal immigration as a major problem.

"Illegal immigration is part of the price we pay for being both a prosperous and a free country, and I'm not willing to sacrifice some of our freedoms to try to keep out immigrants, especially when I don't think it's going to work very well," said Moore.

He added that spending $3 billion-plus a year to fund the Immigration and Naturalization Service "probably is a waste of money. But this is a political issue. And the way you deal with illegal immigration is you increase the INS budget. It doesn't do a lot, but at least politicians on both sides can go home and say, `Well, how can you say I'm not doing anything about immigration? I increased the INS budget.' "

What you don't do, he said, is involve employers in enforcement.

"Sometimes in politics you pass feel-good measures," Moore said. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Passing a bill that's mostly window dressing is a way of defusing public alarm about something. And in states like California, illegal immigration is perceived as a big problem."

The INS contends stronger border enforcement has served as a deterrent for illegal crossers and made once dangerous and chaotic border corridors safer and more calm.

But a better verification system is crucial, insists former Labor Secretary Reich.

"Congress has to act and Congress isn't going to act if the only people it hears from are employers who don't want to be sanctioned," he said.

As long as jobs remain available, he added, efforts to stop illegal immigrants from streaming across the border are doomed to failure.

People will go on dying of exposure and exhaustion as they try to get to the jobs that are waiting for them. They instinctively understand that despite the proliferation of border guards and fences, powerful forces in our society still want them to get across.

"It gets back to the large issue haunting our democratic system right now — the overwhelming dominance of special interests," Reich said.


Labor-union split helps kill worker-verification proposal
By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON — Historically, the AFL-CIO has been the only major lobby asking Congress for a system to make sure people working in the United States are here legally. It wanted to keep illegal workers from taking union members' jobs.

But last year a split erupted within the labor federation, and several influential and growing unions with large numbers of immigrant workers turned around and joined the fight against verification.

"Labor unions have been pro-immigration because so many of their members were immigrants," said Grover Norquist, a conservative Republican who helped spearhead the fight against verification on Capitol Hill. "And they want to be able to appeal to Hispanics and new immigrants.

"On the other hand, some of the older union guys subscribe to the idea that if you close the borders, companies will have to pay higher wages because there won't be so many new workers.

"So labor was split, which was helpful to us," said Norquist. "When you can divide one of your opponents it really helps."

The division within the AFL-CIO actually has existed for years. Last year, however, the pro-immigration camp won out.

Leaders of the garment workers and service employees unions joined the forces fighting to block creation of a reliable national system for verifying worker eligibility as a way to curb illegal immigration.

A labor organizer signing up illegal Guatemalan workers at a poultry plant said he drew no distinction between legal and illegal workers. Labor should be just as free to cross borders as money, he argued. If undocumented workers are on a payroll, he said, unions should be free to sign them up.

Other union officials said the job site isn't the place to enforce immigration laws.

"We'll saddle legitimate employers with a new hiring requirement and the sweatshop operators will continue to flout the law as they do now," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, known as UNITE.

The increasingly visible presence of undocumented workers is triggering the change.

"There are people in the labor movement who understand that their future lies in organizing new Americans, just as it did a hundred years ago," said Rick Swartz, architect of a broad left-right coalition that fought the verification-reform proposals. "That's a big change from a decade ago in terms of the politics of this."