Thursday, June 1, 2006

The Senate immigration bill makes the same mistake as the 1986 amnesty by restricting the ability of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to share information on illegal alien guest-worker applicants who are criminals and terrorists, the agency’s director said yesterday.

Emilio T. Gonzalez, whose agency would have to administer a guest-worker program, said not allowing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to share information on someone who applies means they cannot begin the process of removing criminals and national security threats, even after they are rejected from the guest-worker program.

“It is important for us to be able to act on what we get when we run a background check on somebody,” Mr. Gonzalez said in a briefing with reporters in which he weighed in on the Senate immigration bill, which would offer a chance for citizenship to millions of illegal aliens, expand legal immigration and start a new foreign-worker program.

Mr. Gonzalez said he hasn’t seen any deal breakers in the bill, but said moving forward policy-makers will have to answer key questions about eligibility, types of acceptable documents, information-sharing and limits to judicial appeals.

“If we don’t ask those hard national security questions, shame on me,” he said.

The Senate passed its bill 62-36 last week, and now must work out differences with the House, which in December passed a bill that focuses mainly on securing the borders and cracking down on employers who hire illegal aliens.

Yesterday was the second time Mr. Gonzalez met with reporters since taking over as director on Jan. 4, and he is juggling an ongoing backlog reduction at the same time he is preparing his agency for new instructions from Congress. He said much press attention has been given to the guest-worker program, but the Senate bill also includes a major increase in legal permanent residents, or “green card” holders, which his agency will also have to process.

Mr. Gonzalez, a naturalized citizen himself, has established a new tone that national security should be foremost in employees’ minds at the agency. He said his agency will need at least six months and maybe as much as a year to register current illegal aliens for a foreign-worker program — far longer than the Senate bill envisions.

On the issue of information sharing and confidentiality of applications, Mr. Gonzalez said the law usually allows his agency to share information when its employees come across an application that raises questions. But he said the 1986 amnesty included confidentiality provisions that prohibited sharing information from those applications, and he said the Senate bill makes the same mistake.

“We ought not to be kept from using that information,” he said.

The issue has already been fought out in the Senate, when Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, offered an amendment to change the confidentiality requirements. His amendment failed on a tie vote, 49-49.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a key backer of the Senate bill, fought Mr. Cornyn’s amendment. He said the underlying bill struck a balance that still allows law enforcement to go after cheaters, while at the same time not discouraging illegal aliens from coming forward.

“Our bill removes criminals and those trying to game the system. But it also protects the confidentiality of honest people applying to stay here and work. Otherwise they will remain in the underground economy and never apply, and that hurts American jobs and wages,” he said.

His main worry was that sharing information would discourage some aliens from coming forward because they would fear making an innocent mistake that would hurt them later.

But Mr. Cornyn said his amendment only waived confidentiality at the end of all appeals, when the person would have been finally deemed ineligible.

“If you’ve exhausted all your appeals and you haven’t played by the rules your information should be shared so that the same alien can’t commit fraud elsewhere,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. Cornyn.

He said Mr. Gonzalez’s statement should be a boost as they head into negotiations on a final bill.

“The director who has to actually implement many of the programs people are proposing is an important voice in this, and his guidance should inform this debate,” Mr. Stewart said.

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