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Can Crackdown Halt Border Crossings?

Latest US reform may not lessen attraction to California, magnet for illegal immigrants

In California, where it is estimated that half the nation's population of illegal immigrants resides, groups on both sides of the issue are analyzing the likely impact of the latest federal crackdown on illegal immigration.

The early consensus: a stiffer attitude toward illegals on the surface, not much impact on the flow of immigrants into the state.

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House and Senate conferees are now gearing up to tangle over what new US immigration rules will look like in final form. The Senate May 2 overwhelmingly passed a bill doubling the number of border patrol agents, adding new fencing, and curbing federal benefits to illegals. That legislation must be reconciled with an earlier House bill also boosting border enforcement, increasing penalties for smugglers, and allowing states the option of denying free public schooling to illegals.

"The immigrants will not be slowed by these measures," says Vibiana Andrade, national director of the Immigrant Rights Program for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "What will happen is they will become more desperate and continue unabated at tremendous and increased risk to their own safety and health," she says, noting two recent episodes in which smuggled immigrants died of dehydration in desert mountains and suffocated in a cattle car.

"We feel the congressional action is only cosmetic reform," says Ira Mehlman, director of the Los Angeles office of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "None of the measures deals adequately with employment verification of immigrant status. Unless they [illegals] know it will be very tough to get a job, they will continue to come at all costs."

Indeed, the documenting of immigrants looking for jobs remains a key difference between the House and Senate bills. The Senate version calls for a mandatory pilot program to verify immigrants' legal status by automated phone system. The House requires only voluntary participation.

The bills differ in several other respects:

*Asylum. The House version makes it more difficult for those immigrants fleeing persecution to gain asylum when they arrive in the US without valid travel documents. Some immigrant-rights groups say the provision reverses a 50-year practice of protecting human rights. The Senate bill does not include the controversial measure, and how conferees will resolve the disparity remains unclear.

*Public schooling. The House bill would allow states to deny public education to children who are illegal. Most observers believe this provision will be struck from the final legislation because President Clinton has stated he will veto any legislation that includes it.

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Senate and House versions generally agree on border beef-up (about 5,000 new agents over five years, nearly doubling the current figure of 5,175), deportation (accelerating procedures for those convicted of crimes), and benefit restriction.

Under both bills, illegals will be ineligible for federal, state and local benefits - except certain emergency medical programs. Public benefits will be restricted for some legal immigrants as well, by extending the obligation of American sponsors to support them.

While debate simmers in Washington, the issue continues to play out here from newspaper front pages to local TV news and talk radio. The high-profile dialogue began heating up in early April after a pickup truck carrying more than a dozen illegal immigrants was chased for 100 miles by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies. The deputies were then caught on video tape clubbing two of the offenders. The next week, a truck overturned in Temecula Canyon near San Diego, killing eight undocumented workers.

"There is a lot of public anger in the air over immigration that is fueling this legislation," says Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrant Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He and others note that such anger, when quickly translated into law, takes remedial efforts too far, requiring repeal or rescinding of provisions when the same public finds out what new laws mean in practice.

In 1987, for instance, Congress passed the so-called "marriage fraud" act. Intending to deter those couples who married just to obtain citizenship for the illegal partner, the bill stated that all couples getting married during deportation proceedings would have to live two years outside the US. "Thousands of lawsuits ensued until Congress had to begin enumerating so many exceptions that the law has become toothless," says Ms. Andrade. "I think the same kind of horrible consequences will result from this reform."

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