Two decades after Congress passed the 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens, 15,000 cases are still pending from it — a situation that immigration service officials want to make sure doesn't happen again in any new immigration bill.
Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his agency would be able to administer the legalization and guest-worker provisions of the bill being debated in the Senate.
"I just haven't seen anything there that says we can't do this," he said. "I think the bill as it stands right now is a good, solid bill. And the president deserves a huge amount of credit for wanting to push this forward."
Mr. Gonzalez said in an interview that he also hopes any immigration reform bill approved by Congress would prevent the courts from creating a de facto amnesty for illegal aliens by allowing endless appeals.
Since 1986, he said, his agency has been dealing with "a bureaucratic anchor around our necks that the court imposed upon us."
"You don't want to turn an appellate process and the possibility of a court ordering a reopened period to allow ongoing amnesties, or ongoing legalization programs," said Michael Aytes, USCIS associate director for domestic operations.
The bill pending in the Senate would allow millions of illegal aliens to gain near-instant probationary status and eventually allow them to apply for work visas, legal permanent residence and ultimately citizenship. Much of that workload would go to USCIS, which already handles 6 million applications annually.
Mr. Gonzalez and Homeland Security Department officials worked to include some information-sharing provisions in the Senate bill to help detect fraud, though Republican senators want to add more powers to root out improper applications and to give Homeland Security authority to deport those who don't qualify.
Late yesterday, the Senate voted 57-39 to make sure confidentiality requirements wouldn't prevent the Homeland Security Department from deporting illegal aliens who apply for legalization but are found to be ineligible. The amendment was sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
Although the bill sets outlines of policy, USCIS and other federal agencies eventually will write the rules governing the program. The USCIS would decide, for instance, which documents could be accepted as proof of residency requirements as of Jan. 1.
The agencies also would be charged with revamping processes to make sure aliens can't sue for benefits years later.
After the 1986 amnesty program was implemented, courts ruled that the Immigration and Naturalization Service improperly denied some applications and ordered the agency to allow those aliens to reapply. The courts also said other aliens failed to apply because they were discouraged by those wrongly denied, and that this group of aliens also should be allowed to apply. As a result, Mr. Gonzalez said, thousands of new applications were filed, including by people who clearly didn't qualify.
"The people that then came in, supposedly under that class — most of them weren't even born in 1986. So the refusal rate, or the denial rate, is what, 90 percent or some astronomical amount," he said.
Mr. Aytes said the department wants the 1986 cases finished.
"My emphasis to my folks has been in the last six months, you've had 21 years to adjudicate this thing and did not find a basis to deny, you've allowed them to remain 21 years, it's time to move on. I do not want a significant volume of these cases pending when we're about to open a new program," he said.
Mr. Gonzalez said the government must be prepared to reject and deport those who fall outside the requirements under any new immigration reform program.
"It's very, very important how we treat the people that won't qualify," he said. "We are very, very good as an agency, and we are very, very good as a country, at accommodating people, bringing people here, mainstreaming folks, but if we can't say no to the few that don't qualify, for whatever reasons, how do we expect the American voter, the America taxpayer, to allow us to say yes to the many that do qualify?"