The Fire Over Illegal Immigrants Starts To Singe Clinton

Former Representative Barbara Jordan, a paragon of Democratic liberalism, is the last person you would expect to set off a political firestorm for trampling on civil rights. Yet that's the charge she faces as head of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

On Sept. 30, Jordan's panel is to issue tough proposals for slowing the flood of illegal aliens. Among the controversial recommendations are new techniques to screen out undocumented workers--including a tamper-proof

Social Security card--and the denial of government benefits to illegals. The report comes amid a growing national outcry for aggressive steps to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants--an ever-heavier economic burden on the states. But liberal voices of tolerance, including the American Civil Liberties Union, worry that Jordan's group is going too far.

These divisions put President Clinton in a bind. He can't ignore the clamor for a crackdown, but his response could trigger a backlash from Hispanics and Asian Americans who fear a rise of xenophobia and race discrimination.

HIGH-TECH CHECK. Attorney General Janet Reno pledges "to keep politics out of this and do it [enforcement] the right way." But that's close to impossible. Intense anti-immigrant sentiment has erupted in California, the key state in the 1996 Presidential election. Polls show nearly two out of three voters (including 44% of Latinos) back a "Save Our State" (SOS) ballot initiative, which would deny social services to undocumented aliens and require state employees--such as teachers--to turn in suspected illegals. California, Florida, Arizona, New Jersey, and Texas also are suing the U.S. for $4.4 billion laid out to jail criminal aliens and provide health and education benefits to other illegals--a cost that they blame on poor federal enforcement.

Against that backdrop, the Jordan Commission is sure to fan the flames. Take its most controversial measure--a worker-verification system--which Clinton is expected to embrace. Employers would have to check the status of prospective workers by matching a high-tech Social Security card against a computerized list. The card would replace a cumbersome system under which employers often are duped by forged documents when they fill out work-verification forms. "Any way to get rid of the forms is automatically appealing," says Peter J. Eide of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But immigration advocacy groups and civil libertarians vow to fight the card. They say it could provide the means to impose further restrictions on aliens, such as the denial of benefits under California's SOS ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, Congress is raising the prospect of going beyond Jordan's panel by curbing legal entries before the 1996 election. On Sept. 21, Senator Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.) proposed reducing immigration by two-thirds--to 325,000 annually--for five years. That's one remedy both business and immigration groups oppose. Limiting imported labor, would be "troubling for employers," says Daryl R. Buffenstein, an Atlanta immigration attorney who represents corporations. Frets Karen K. Narasaki, a lobbyist for the Japanese American Citizens League: "No matter how outrageous the provision, if it's anti-immigrant, it would pass."

So far, Clinton has plied a middle course. He's beefed up the border patrol and cracked down on alien smuggling, both reasonable measures. But as the immigration debate reaches a crescendo, he will be subject to more extreme demands to close America's doors. If the President is to resist calls to erect "Not Welcome" signs to the legal immigrants who have been a source of national strength for generations, he will have to do more to satisfy the clamor for a harder line on illegals.

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