- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Few immigrants have been barred from entering the United States under a law designed to force illegal immigrants to return home and wait before being able to apply for legal residence, in effect neutering a key part of the 1996 immigration-reform law, a new study says.

The report by the Center for Immigration Studies says many one-time illegal immigrants were granted waivers allowing them to immigrate despite the intent of the 1996 law, which should have barred them from entering the country for three or 10 years, depending on how long they were in the U.S. illegally.

And the ban doesn’t apply to those who continue to live in the U.S. illegally, waiting to apply for residence through one of the periodic amnesties or windows for immigrants to adjust their status, says Jessica Vaughan, the report’s author.

“Congress sold everyone this bill and said we’re getting tough on immigration and then, down the line, basically reversed themselves,” she said.

Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the center, said it’s just another example of the disconnect between immigration-control legislation Congress passes and the way it plays out.

“It’s illustrative of how efforts to enforce immigration law are often subverted, but people don’t realize it. And they’re subverted by a cast of characters,” he said, pointing to changes to the law pushed by members of Congress, and to a narrow interpretation of the law by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.

When the 1996 law passed, a number of immigration advocates feared millions would be barred from entry. But Mrs. Vaughan’s report found that from its inception in 1998 through 2001 the bar prohibited fewer than 12,000 persons from coming into the United States.

Meanwhile, narrow interpretations of the law by the INS and subsequent amnesties and adjustments of status passed by Congress “have shielded as many as 2.5 million illegal immigrants from being barred for unlawful presence.”

The three/10-year ban — three years for those who were in the U.S. illegally for six months to a year, and 10 years for those who were in the U.S. illegally for more than a year — was designed to punish those who flouted the system and reward those who followed the law and applied from their home country.

But advocates also say the background check that occurs overseas is more thorough, since it is conducted through consular offices with knowledge of the country, and it also makes sure that if visas are denied to applicants, they aren’t already in the U.S., where it has been difficult for the government to track and deport them.

James G. Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland who co-wrote “The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform,” said the 1996 law happened in the context of the early-1990s economic downturn, traditionally a time that leads to a tightening of immigration controls.

“What happened was after 1996 times got better — it was fat city for a number of years there, and all the business groups coming out of the woodwork saying there was a labor shortage,” he said, which laid the groundwork for some of the more recent changes to law.

Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, said what’s happened with the law is just natural.

He said Congress often passes legislation and then, along with the administration, has “a form of buyers’ remorse” and tries to tweak the policy to account for particular situations, which show up through interpretations and subsequent legislation.

“It simply means that when Congress sees some obstacles on trying to do something slightly different, it simply moves them out of the way,” Mr. Papademetriou said.

He said he believes enough members of Congress still support the underlying three/10-year ban that it won’t be changed in any piecemeal legislation, but the next time Congress reviews overall immigration policy he wouldn’t be surprised to see it changed to grandfather in those already here, or eliminated entirely.

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