Amnesty for Immigrants: Will It Work?

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

From March 22 to 25,1987, the Dallas Times Herald featured a comprehensive analysis of illegal immigration, the new amnesty reforms, and their impact on Texas and Mexico, employers and immigrants. The report included detailed guides on how to get amnesty, what the law covers, where immigrants live and work, and the history of US. immigration policy. Thousands of copies of the reprinted 28-page bilingual broadsheet have since been disseminated throughout the United States and abroad, and a four-member team at the Times Herald continues to follow immigration reform issues. What follows is excerpted from the original investigation conducted by editors Ernie Sotomayor and Cindi Craft and reporters Dudley Althaus, Richard Beene, Jeff Collins, Tom Curtis, Richard S. Dunham, Robert M. Feinstein, David Fritz, David Pasztor, Lisa Hoffman, and John Mac- Cormack. 


Dallas — Nobody believed it would ever happen. Paralyzed by bitter national debate, the immigration issue lay hopelessly deadlocked for years. But on November 6, with the strike of President Reagan's pen, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 became law. A nation of immigrant heritage drew in its welcome mat. 

Immediately, questions — from employers, workers, illegal immigrants, minority groups and native citizens — began pouring forth. How will the law work? How will it change our lives? How can I apply for amnesty? 

The struggle by a wealthy, immigrant land to decide who else should be allowed a chance to scale the summit has long driven Americans into soul-searching debate. Immigration, says Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) is "a grueling, ghastly issue filled with emotion, guilt and racism." 

Believing that the rising number of immigrants slipping illicitly into the country had made a mockery of America's right to select its new citizens, Congress last year passed the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act, groping for the legislative equivalent of a reset button. 

A powerful nation had lost control, legislators decided. Untold numbers of people were entering surreptitiously and siphoning off jobs and money while a growing number of Americans — most notably minorities and teenagers — could not find work. 

The country as a whole agreed. While more than 20 million people donated money to Save the Lady on her 100th birthday, opinion polls showed that four out of five Americans supported an all-out effort to secure the borders. 

The act holds out the uplifting promise of citizenship to as many as four million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico but also from El Salvador, Thailand, Haiti, Poland, Iran, Israel, and countless other countries. If only half that number apply during the one-year amnesty period, they will easily dwarf the largest number of legal immigrants — more than 1.2 million in 1907 — ever admitted to the country in a single year. 

But, for all its breadth, it appears almost certain the law will fall short of many of its goals. Weighed against history and subjected to the tortuous practical tests certain to stand in its way, the reforms appear unlikely to stop those determined to slip into the country. 

In particular, the reforms will not dampen the desire for workers to leave Mexico, where the minimum daily wage is about $2.90 and slipping daily as the peso devaluation continues. In the end, the porous 1,936-mile Southern border between the U.S. and Mexico may be patched, but not secured. 

"As long as they have to continue trying to feed their families or flee for their lives, they're going to continue coming across the border," said Toney Anaya, former governor of New Mexico and an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights. "No law is going to prevent that." 


The New Law's Three Goals 

It is up to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to take the law, a blueprint drafted and passed down by congressional architects, and build programs. For reform to work, it must simultaneously do three things: Make amnesty accessible to up to four million illegal immigrants; try to purge the country of up to two million additional illegal aliens who don't qualify for amnesty; and convince 4.5 million employers across the country not to hire undocumented labor. 

To stop the flow of immigrants, Congress instructed the INS to increase the number of Border Patrol agents by 50 percent; but the agency has submitted budget requests lower than Congress authorized. As a result, the number of agents will probably increase by less than one third, and it will take two years to reach that level. 

In addition, in writing the rules to govern both the amnesty and employer sanctions programs, the INS has crippled its own cause, critics from many quarters argue. The amnesty regulations are too strict, and may deter people from applying; and the sanctions regulations may be too lax, making it easy for employers to circumvent them if they wish to hire illegal labor, critics say. 

Although the INS is scheduled to start looking for violators of employer sanctions beginning June 1, it will attempt to do so with almost no new investigators. Ultimately, the INS is supposed to double the number of investigators. But one INS official guesses that, with the time required for hiring and training, it will be two years before many of the new investigators are in place, and even then they may be "only a drop in the bucket." 

Perhaps the harshest criticism has been directed at the agency's preparations for amnesty, which the INS calls "legalization." Just five weeks before it opens on May 5, the amnesty program was still far from being ready. The staff the INS needed to run the program had not been entirely hired, much less trained. Arrangements were being finalized for more than 100 special offices across the country to take applications. 

Even if the machinery is in place on time, early drafts of regulations have convinced some that the INS will be so strict in granting amnesty — and the cost of applying may be so high — that many of the people Congress envisioned qualifying will not. 

Living in the United States for more than five years and being able to prove it are different matters, some say, particularly for people who have cloaked themselves in anonymity to avoid the authorities. 

Jesus Bustos believes he meets the requirements for amnesty, but is unsure if he can produce documents to establish his residency in Dallas, where he came 15 years ago to earn money for his family in the Mexican village of Rancho La Escondidita. 

"I've got some papers, but I don't have all that they require," he said. "I had money order receipts, but I threw them away. It was trash. I tore them into little pieces." 

Undaunted, Bustos has visited a lawyer, attended an immigration conference, and begun contacting employers to get letters confirming his residency and employment in the U.S. The alternative is returning to Mexico. 

"There you don't make very much. You can't survive very easily," Bustos said. "I've got to risk it [identifying himself to authorities as an illegal immigrant]. If I don't risk it, I don't win anything." 

The INS has built dozens of requirements into the regulations that may delay, or trip up applicants like Bustos. Along with the documents proving residency, for example, aliens must submit a set of fingerprints for a criminal record check, a medical examination report from an approved doctor, proof that they can support themselves without becoming a "public charge" and, where appropriate, proof that they have registered for the U.S. military draft. 

Operating with scant official information, those who believe they might qualify for amnesty have packed churches and schools to hear explanations of the new law. Amid the traded rumors and speculation, some who might have qualified have left the country, surrendering to fears that they could not meet the complex set of application rules. 


Voluntary Compliance 

For employers, a different sort of nervousness has set in. Knowing little about the law except that they risk new fines if they don't comply, corner store owners and personnel directors of companies that employ thousands alike have clamored for information. 

INS officials are pinning the success of sanctions on voluntary compliance, particularly since they will not have anywhere near the number of investigators needed to police the nation's 4.5 million employers. 

The agency already has stated that, when enforcing sanctions, it will pay little attention to so-called "casual hires" — maids, gardeners and the like — and also will spend little time policing small employers. 

"We are not interested in fining or jailing people who violate the law," said Alan C. Nelson, the INS commissioner. "We will do that, obviously, as we must, but we hope that that can be a minimum. This is going to work because people want to make it work." 

With a depressed Texas economy, the prospects of higher wages and increased government regulation have some area employers scorning the lofty goals of Congress in favor of business realities. 

"I'm not so much concerned with the social or political issues," said A1 Salgado, principal partner of Triad Marble and Granite, who said he had hired illegal aliens in the past. "I'll leave that to somebody else. I'm trying to make a living and this [law] is just another thing making it hard to do so." 

One project foreman at a Dallas concrete company laughed softly at the thought of willingly following a law that could mean his business would suffer for lack of affordable labor. 

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials believe, however, that competition within the business community will help force compliance. "I think competing businesses will report the hell out of [violators]," said Stephen Martin, INS Southern Regional Commissioner. 

As it is, few area employers admit to hiring illegal aliens. And local and state associations representing the restaurant, hotel and construction industries insist that their members have never knowingly done so. At the same time, however, many employers admit illegal labor has played a crucial role in many Texas businesses. 

"I think we'd all be kidding ourselves to say we don't hire them," Salgado said. "In the construction industry, everyone does it. We're just like anybody else. If they show up, we're going to employ them. The attraction is they want to work. They show up seven days a week if you want them." 

The new immigration law's ban against hiring illegal workers poses a special problem for thousands of farmers and ranchers throughout Texas. Undocumented aliens — primarily Mexicans — have been plucking chickens, shearing sheep, feeding livestock, picking fruits and vegetables, clearing brush and punching cattle on farms and ranches for years. 

By some estimates, illegal aliens make up as much as 50 percent of the agricultural work force in Texas, where production and processing of food and fiber accounts for 20 percent of the state's jobs and income. They do some of the hardest, loneliest jobs for well below the minimum wage. 

The prohibition against employing illegal immigrants will mostly hurt the smaller, independent farms and ranches, which can ill afford to hire hands at minimum wage or above. Some predict the law will push the strapped family farms that have survived this long closer to the brink of bankruptcy. 

The new law does make winners out of growers of perishable fruits and vegetables who need to quickly harvest the crops before they rot. For the growers, it provides a plentiful labor pool by generously granting amnesty to thousands of illegal farm workers who can prove they worked the fields just three months a year between 1983 and 1985 or just 90 days before May 1, 1986. 

If it works, the law will bring in an era of greater government regulation of the farming and ranching industry's hiring practices, said Elizabeth Whitley, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The council represents several large fruit and vegetable growers. Along with that may come more assertiveness among workers and more frequent tangles with farm worker advocates. 

Though the new immigration law gives undocumented farm workers cause for celebration, their union leaders see the overall package, with its expanded guest workers program, as a change that is at best a mixed and untested blessing. 

"We were surprised that the legalization of farm workers got in there. They gave us a bigger break than regular folks," said Rebecca Flores Harrington, director of the UFW's Texas branch. "But essentially, I think it's a growers' bill. It creates another class of exploitable labor," she said. 

It is the so-called "H-2" or guest worker program that has Harrington and others worried. 

Growers contend the foreign laborers are essential because there are not always enough U.S. workers to harvest perishable crops. Critics, farm worker unions foremost amongst them, say the foreigners take jobs from domestic workers, depress wages and undercut union strengths. Further, the guest workers have traditionally been ready game for exploitation by their employers. 

"H-2s are more attractive to growers than people who are free. They come under permit and if they gripe or anything, they can't come back next year. The growers have their names and they can blacklist them. And of course, the growers break every contract they make with the H-2s," Harrington said. 


Ripple Effects of the Reforms 

As with any major revision of the law, the ripples set in motion by this one may have effects Congress did not intend: 

♦ If the jobs that have traditionally drawn illegal immigrants to the country are no longer open to them, employers may have to choose between paying higher wages to attract legal workers, moving their businesses out of the country or closing down. The loss of cheap labor could eventually slow the country's overall growth by anywhere from $20 billion to $60 billion, depending on how effective the ban on illegal hiring is, according to a recent report prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. 

♦ Facing possible fines or even jail for knowingly hiring illegal workers, many employers are likely to closely scrutinize job applicants whose names, accents or appearances seem foreign. Civil rights groups fear the result will be wholesale discrimination against foreigners — particularly Hispanics — by employers who decline to hire them either intentionally, subconsciously or out of misguided efforts to play it safe. One national Hispanic group estimates that 15,000 Hispanic job seekers may risk discrimination each week. 

In New York City, some Puerto Rican workers who are U.S. citizens have been singled out by employers to document their legality, American Civil Liberties Union officials said. In California, Hispanic workers with work permits have called an immigration hot line number to complain they were fired for not having "green cards," which denote permanent residency. In some cases, employers fired workers because their green cards were not actually green, but the current colors of blue and white. 

Attorneys specializing in employment law say the reforms may provoke a landslide of complaints because it gives employees a broader basis to file their cases, and it doubles the number of employers covered by prohibitions against national origin discrimination. 

Under the Reagan administration, civil rights enforcement has reached "the lowest ebb in the last 50 years in this country," said Dallas attorney Jim Barber, who gave up practicing discrimination law three years ago because cases bogged down for years. "In spite of millions of dollars they [Justice Department officials] have to enforce civil rights, they have done damn near nothing." 

The government's initial steps in establishing an Office of Special Counsel to handle discrimination complaints seem cautious, if not halfhearted, some critics said. In its recent budget recommendations, the Justice Department requested $1.4 million and 30 positions for the Special Counsel office in 1987, and $4.2 million and 60 positions in 1988. Some minority rights groups believe the figures are minuscule. 

♦ Even the most optimistic agree that some number of people will continue to illegally enter the country after reform and will find work. Legally barred from jobs, some believe, they and any remaining illegal immigrants will become a subclass more deeply buried from sight than illegal immigrants are now, and will be even more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from unscrupulous employers who risk hiring them. 

♦ Canada, a historical haven for refugees like the U.S., already has been forced to tighten its own immigration laws as scores of people, panicked by the changes here, seek sanctuary farther north. In the three months after the U.S. reforms passed, for instance, three times as many El Salvadoran refugees sought asylum in Canada as had the entire previous year. 

Fourteen years ago, Canada had an estimated illegal population of between 50,000 and 250,000. Officials granted a general amnesty, which proved to be the most successful ever, and made it a crime to hire illegal workers. In all, 19,000 illegal aliens applied for amnesty. 

Today, however, the country is believed to have 200,000 illegal immigrants. The employment laws have fallen into disuse after they proved too cumbersome to enforce. 

♦ In Mexico, where money sent back from the United States is the country's second largest source of outside income behind oil, the reforms could deal a staggering blow to an already crippled economy. Illegal laborers now send back between $2 billion and $3 billion annually to the country, and to cut off that flow would devastate families, Mexican officials say. 

The ranks of the unemployed will swell to distressing proportions as the aliens return to Mexico, where official government statistics measure the jobless rate at about 18 percent. Independent studies say as many as 40 percent of the nation's eligible workers are either unemployed or underemployed, earning less than the government minimum wage. Already there are six million people out of work, and compounding the problem, another 900,000 Mexicans reach working age every year and try to squeeze into an already overwhelmed job market. 

Many of the Mexicans who are kept out of the United States or return to their homeland will join millions of homeless people who are left helpless because the government has virtually no welfare system and few other public assistance programs, except minimal medical services. 

Consider this: in 1982, Mexico's foreign income from petroleum imports totaled $15.6 billion. As worldwide oil prices began slipping, the figure dropped in 1985 to $13.3 billion. Last year it plunged to $5.45 billion, and with prices near $12 to $13 a barrel, 1987's income is projected to be about $4.9 billion. 

With the current economic outlook, the remittances sent home by illegal workers in the United States play no small role in helping millions of families escape wretched poverty, especially since 105 percent inflation rates are constantly draining the peso's buying power. Jesus Bustos, the Mexican worker in Dallas, sends home $ 100 to $200 a month to his wife, who lives with five children in a small village in the interior state of Guanajuanto. The average farm wage in the area is about $ 1.50 a day, or $36 a month for working six days a week. The family's buying power more than tripled. To provide milk for her five children, Bustos' wife spends 4,000 pesos a week, or slightly less than $4 — almost half a week's salary in rural Guanajuanto. Bustos earns that much money in one hour. 

"It is the same old problem with the United States," said one top Mexican official. "They just pass a law, act like we're not here, and expect the problem to go away. Well, this so-called problem has everything to do with Mexico, and we feel this requires a bilateral — not unilateral — approach." 

The Immigration Reform and Control Act "will have some impact for a while," said Leonel Castillo, who headed the INS during the Carter administration. "And then in five, ten years, we'll be back with another major immigration reform bill. [Illegals] will come again. Simply because they have no choice."