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Monday, April 10, 2006 | A key element of the Senate’s tenuous immigration compromise could flood San Diego with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants seeking to start off their green card applications by leaving the country and returning through a border city.
Though the bill is currently floundering and is likely to change significantly before anything gets passed into law, several San Diego experts and politicians have deep concerns about how the legislation could eventually shape up.
“The system, at first thought, seems entirely unworkable,” said Gordon Hanson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on Mexican immigration.
The Senate’s stalled bill would put illegal immigrants into three categories. Those who have been in the country for more than five years could apply for legal permanent residency. Any immigrants here for less than two years would have to return to their home countries.
But it is what would happen to immigrants who have been here for two-to-five years that could have serious repercussions for San Diego.
According to the Senate’s compromise, the 3 million or so immigrants who fall into that third category would have three years to apply for legal status as temporary workers. To apply for the temporary worker program, they would have to travel to a land port of entry and exit the United States before re-entering to begin the process.
San Diego would be the recipient of a large proportion of immigrants seeking to take advantage of such a program. That would mean serious consequences for local services ranging from immigration application centers to public transportation.
“San Diego’s ports of entry would become the key staging points for the 2.2 million unauthorized migrants estimated to be in California,” Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD, said in an e-mail.
“I doubt that anyone in Washington pushing this ‘compromise’ has given much thought to the potential impacts on local infrastructure, including the staff that will be needed at the ports-of-entry to process the flood of applications,” he added.
Officials foresee vastly increased numbers of immigration applications, which could flood San Diego’s system for processing applicants for citizenship. The knock-on effects of so many people coming to San Diego en route to citizenship could also include strains on public services such as schools and hospitals.
“You’re looking at a period of time where you’ve got what strikes me as a nightmare,” said Chris Woodruff, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UCSD.
“Depending on how long they take to process this thing, you’d have a one-month, three-month process where you would have a lot of people here,” he added.
A spokesman for the San Diego office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said his office has a policy of not commenting on legislation that is still pending. Jill Olen, head of public safety for the city of San Diego, said she also won’t be ready to comment until the final legislation is ready.
That could be a while. The Senate’s bill has been stalled until Congress reconvenes in two weeks. A House bill has already passed. If the two chambers pass conflicting bills, a conference committee comprised of leaders of both parties is tasked with hashing out a compromise bill.
Local lawmakers worry that the resulting bill could could still contain the provision to send illegal immigrants San Diego’s way.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, said Hunter has deep concerns about many elements of the Senate bill. He said he doesn’t know whether Hunter would be part of a conference committee.
“He would certainly make his voice heard on the concerns of any type of legislation that they do, in terms of sending people to border cities,” said Michael Harrison, Hunter’s spokesman.
Fred Sainz, spokesman for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, said elements of the proposed legislation are also of concern to the mayor. However, without any final legislation to analyze, Sainz said the mayor has not yet been able to get to grips with the potential effects of such a change in immigration law.
But Sainz said the mayor will try to ensure that San Diego does not get saddled with the administration of a new federal immigration scheme.
“We would certainly not want to see any unfunded mandates from the federal government,” he said. “Any impositions such as this on local government, we would certainly like to see funded.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at