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Our country now hosts as many as 15 million undocumented aliens, yet they are oddly invisible to most Americans. Contrary to the rhetoric that these aliens are dragging down our economy, virtually all of them are contributing to it. Many work under bogus Social Security numbers and may never benefit from all the taxes withheld from their wages. Others work off the books because U.S. workers don’t want to do the dirty work that many aliens are willing to do. All of the aliens buy food and clothing and pay for various necessities-that puts money back into our economy. Many send money home, some to countries where a week’s U.S. wages exceeds a year’s earnings in the home county. The biggest oversight of our government is its failure to follow through on a major promise to our country’s alien population. Twice, for brief periods ending Jan. 14, 1998, and April 30, 2001, Congress enacted legislation to allow undocumented aliens to file papers for “green cards.” Millions did. Their employers and family members filed forms under oath, with the names, addresses, birth dates and identifying data on the applicants. Papers were filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and with the departments of labor in the 50 states. Since 1998 the government has had access to databases of millions of undocumented aliens. While some may wonder why the INS and its successor agencies have not put these people into proceedings to remove them, others wonder how Congress can be so blind. We have employers who can be hit up for unpaid Social Security and withholding taxes and workers who can be compelled to pay income taxes. All alien workers need are temporary employment authorization documents to enter the system. They’re here and they’re working. If these aliens were issued legitimate Social Security numbers, our government could begin the process of transferring the billions of dollars in the Social Security suspense account into the Social Security coffers from which benefits are paid. Congress is not addressing the issue of undocumented aliens in a comprehensive way. For starters, there’s too much talk about “illegal” aliens. The term isn’t apt. Many undocumented aliens entered on tourist or student visas and overstayed. They have violated their status but have not violated criminal statutes. And, while there are civil and criminal sanctions for employing unauthorized workers, it is not a crime for an unauthorized alien to accept employment. Enough proposals-time to act Patiently we watch the proposals, as Congress tries to grapple with ever more complicated issues: Shall we let alien children who entered as infants and have been schooled in the U.S. get legal status so they can attend college-or shall we ship them back to unfamiliar countries? What about the Mexican landscapers whose employers filed papers for them with the departments of labor in 1998? And what about those who sought asylum here, whom our government said could stay here for life? With a limit of 10,000 green card places per year, the wait for these people to get green cards may exceed 15 years. The Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, would be a good start. This Senate bill would create an earned green card program for undocumented farm workers. The House’s 9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act, contains almost a dozen anti-civil liberties provisions. Restricting the ability of aliens to get driver licenses won’t make the country safer, nor is it fair to remove people to countries without functioning governments or to eliminate last-hope habeas corpus relief. The Senate proposal recommends improved security for driver licenses and birth certificates, but does not attempt to interpolate provisions for the exclusion and removal of aliens. Hopefully President Bush in his second term will go beyond the pending bills to address the many unfulfilled promises to alien communities. Jo Anne Chernev-Adlerstein heads the immigration law group at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner.

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