The New York Times, April 4, 1997
WASHINGTON - Judging by the panicked pronouncements of advocacy groups, you would think that the new immigration law which went into effect this week was kicking out immigrants right and left. Anxious illegal immigrants lined up at marriage bureaus in New York City, and the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed lawsuits. Activists have complained that the law, which applies mainly to illegal immigrants, is, in the overused word of the day, Draconian.
Yet it was the very success of these groups that made the law necessary in the first place. For years, they tried to thwart enforcement of immigration laws by aggressively taking advantage of every crack in the legal system. Congress has merely pushed back by closing these loopholes. A review of the new law puts the claims of the defenders of illegal immigrants in context:
- Illegal aliens must now apply for political asylum within one year of entering the United States. This provision responds to the many illegal immigrants who, after living here for years, filed for asylum only after they were caught and had exhausted all other means of avoiding deportation.
- The law raises the bar for undocumented immigrants who seek a green card on grounds of hardship. The numbers of such waivers, though small, were growing by almost 50 percent a year as lawyers made more and more inventive, and successful, claims of "hardship" for their clients.
For instance, an illegal immigrant successfully argued last year that he could not return to Nicaragua because he was too accustomed to life in the United States. His evidence? He loved baseball.
Congress now caps the number of green cards granted for hardship purposes, and requires that immigrants prove that they have lived here for 10 years and that deportation would result in "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" for immediate relatives who are citizens or legal immigrants.
- The law makes it difficult to file obstructionist class-action suits against the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A number of such suits allowed illegal aliens to remain in the United States. One such suit is forcing the agency to re-examine, one by one, the asylum rejections of more than 200,000 undocumented Central Americans.
- In the past, an immigrant visa was easy to obtain, even if someone had previously lived in the United States illegally. Under the new law, there will be a meaningful penalty; people who live here illegally for six months beyond April 1 will be barred from entering the country for three years, and those who stay illegally for a year or more will be barred for 10 years.
The United States is home to more than five million illegal immigrants; 400,000 more settle here each year. This growing number, combined with the aggressive efforts on their behalf by advocacy groups, made it imperative to strengthen the immigration law.
Moreover, advocates complaining about the new law have only themselves to blame. When legislation was being debated in Congress last year, these very same groups embraced the effort to control illegal migration - but only to avoid proposed cuts in legal immigration. Now that reforms in laws governing legal immigration have been defeated, at least for the time being, these activists are backtracking.
Given the intensity of their opposition to the new law, one wonders if the advocacy groups would support any limits on immigration whatsoever, legal or illegal.