The passion that fueled California's Proposition 187, which would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving most government benefits, has propelled debate on the issue to the front pages of newspapers across the country. Citizens in Arizona, Texas and Florida are organizing campaigns to put referendums similar to Proposition 187 on their ballots in 1996. People in more than a dozen other states have expressed interest in organizing similar campaigns. Barbara Coe of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform told the Los Angeles Times, "We anticipated the passage of Proposition 187 would have a ripple effect across the nation. Right now, we feel like we are in the midst of a tidal wave, for goodness' sake!"
The politicians, as usual, are adept at reading the polls. California Gov. Pete Wilson took the message to Washington, proposing a federal version of Proposition 187 in a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich and in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed plans to introduce a national version of the proposition. However, making welfare benefits for illegal immigrants the focus of immigration reform might be the worst legacy of Proposition 187.
First, restricting public benefits for immigrants will not significantly affect the rate of illegal immigration. The consensus among immigration experts is that few immigrants are drawn to the United States because of public benefits. Illegal immigrants, who do not qualify for the vast majority of federal welfare benefits, come to this country almost exclusively because of abundant employment opportunities.
Second, focusing on welfare benefits will distract Washington from enacting the bold, fundamental reforms that would be truly successful. If Wilson and Proposition 187 sponsors continue to successfully monopolize the debate, Washington - Congress, its staff, advocacy groups and the press - will spend its limited time and attention span debating the emotional arguments for and against a federal Proposition 187. Meanwhile, vital reforms will be set aside. Congress should focus instead on a package of long-term and short-term solutions, including:
* Reform the federal immigration bureaucracy. A recent New York Times investigative series concluded that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, is "perhapsthe most troubled major agency in the federal government." After a 1990 General Accounting Office audit of the INS, the project director remarked, "I don't think we've found a federal agency this badly managed."
The INS is notorious for its weak management structure, faulty accounting systems and inaccurate information systems. Despite a long record of failure, the INS follows the life cycle of all bureaucracies: In the last four years, its budget has doubled. The Clinton administration claims it has "reinvented" the INS, but the agency needs much more than incremental reform. Congress should seriously study eliminating the INS and constructing a new agency from the ground up. In the interim, Congress should commission a private management-consulting firm to propose structural reforms in the INS.
* Aggressively expand trade with South America and Asia. The last commission to study the illegal-immigration problem comprehensively concluded in 1990 that "expanded trade between the sending countries and the United States is the single most important long-term remedy" to the problem. If people can obtain good jobs at home, they are much less likely to travel thousands of miles to live illegally here in the United States. …