When the Costa Mesa, Calif., city council voted to bar undocumented aliens from local public housing, Jack Kemp, secretary of housing and urban development, said no. The council's voluntary efforts to promote what it considered federal immigration policy amounted to "clear injustice," the secretary said. "HUD's community development programs do not require citizenship or legal permanent alien status for eligibility."
But from C Street in Northeast Washington, to Largo, Md., to Fairfax, some local authorities, like the since chastened Costa Mesa city council, have deputized themselves as immigration police, refusing to grant drivers' licenses and college admission to perfectly qualified applicants who do not have green cards.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the D.C. Department of Public Works are charged with maintaining public safety, yet they have assumed the task of keeping the roads free of illegal aliens, a job they are neither qualified nor authorized to do.
In the academic world, the University of Maryland, George Mason University and Prince George's Community College do not admit undocumented foreign students, even those who have met the qualifications for a green card and are merely waiting for their names to be reached on years-long waiting lists. Like the public colleges that do admit aliens, (Northern Virginia Community College, the University of the District of Columbia and Montgomery College), they are authorized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to admit and keep track of those on student visas, but none is required to reject an applicant without one. These local colleges and motor vehicle bureaus have created new obstacles in the lives of immigrants out of whole cloth.
In 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to grant amnesty to longtime undocumented residents and to reduce illegal immigration, it forbade employers from hiring anyone without proof of U.S. citizenship or Immigration Service work permits. The new law said nothing, however, about eligibility for housing, higher education and highway driving. No law requires anyone but employers and employment agencies to check anyone's immigration documents, and no immigration law bars anyone from driving or studying.
In fact, in 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ordered public schools to admit the children of undocumented aliens and not to erect "unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit." Since most would one day be citizens, wouldn't it be better for us all, the court reasoned, if they were educated? A large percentage of the "illegal aliens" seeking college admission or a driver's license are men and women who are legally qualified for green cards and will eventually receive them after waiting on lists of two to 16 years' duration. They might as well get an advanced education and a learner's permit now.
A recent General Accounting Office report has shown substantial employment discrimination against foreign-looking U.S. citizens and legal aliens in the wake of IRCA, but the report makes no mention of the surprising and perhaps unforeseen wave of officially sanctioned petty harassment of illegal immigrants carried out by well-intentioned "volunteers" as well as outright xenophobes, who believe that IRCA created a national policy of legal discrimination against illegal immigrants. IRCA has given people -- even reasonable men and women and well-intentioned bureaucrats -- the impression that it is not only acceptable but responsible to discriminate against undocumented immigrants in housing, education and even highway safety.
As a consequence, even at local colleges with admissions policies that don't discriminate against undocumented foreign students, some employees take it upon themselves to reject their applications. And in offices and agencies where visa discrimination has been adopted as official policy, administrators seem to believe that federal law requires them to hinder undocumented applicants whenever possible. After all, when state employees apply for jobs, they must show citizenship or immigration documents, so why shouldn't students and drivers?
Officials of local colleges and universities and the DPW and MVA might think they are just doing their part as citizens, but these officials would do better to follow HUD's example and do what they do best. HUD is in the housing business, the University of Maryland in the education business and the Department of Public Works is in the safety business. But in immigration, the Immigration Service has the franchise.
-- Priscilla Labovitz practices immigration law in the District.