(29) 1996 immigration reform

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was probably the biggest immigration reform since the elimination of the immigration quota. The elimination of the quota system got rid of racial discrimination, but other side effects began to appear at the time.

For example, the number of the cases where elderly immigrants invited by their children immediately received benefits from the government, such as food stamps and welfare benefits, increased greatly.

As a result, many wondered why they should help these immigrants, who had never paid taxes in the U.S., with taxpayers’ money, and why their children could not take financial responsibility of them. Finally, reform bills were proposed in Congress. Radical anti-immigration bills were also proposed, mainly by the members of Republican Party.

For example, they made a change in deportation laws so that minor crimes like shoplifting became deportable offenses, which had previously been limited to the crimes punishable by five or more years in prison. There was also a broad reform proposal that contained the deportation of illegal immigrants and increasing border security by hiring over 10,000 guards and constructing fences over the U.S.-Mexico border. Many other proposals came out, but not many of them were passed.

The most problematic issue for the Korean-American community was the bill that made elderly non-citizen immigrants ineligible for the government benefits. This reform would certainly deal a serious blow to the Korean-American community, since almost none of the old Korean immigrants had U.S. citizenship.

To become a citizen, they first needed to become a permanent resident and live in the U.S. at least for five years with no criminal records. They then needed to submit to an interview in English, which made it impossible for the elderly, who cannot speak English, to become a citizen.

Therefore, some Republican lawmakers (including me) proposed an amendment that allowed permanent residents to receive government benefits. The argument was that permanent residents should be eligible for government benefits since they are not different from citizens, except for not having the voting right or paying taxes, usual prerequisites for citizenship.

Fortunately, this bill barely passed through Congress. However, wrong information was spread in the Korean-American community that I proposed a bill to deprive Korean seniors without permanent residency of government benefits. Oddly enough, the Korean-American press thought that I was arrogant, disliked me for it, and criticized me at every opportunity. Their reports on the immigration reform bill treated me like an enemy of the Korean-American community, someone depriving the Korean elderly of government benefits.

These articles were translated into English and sent to two major news papers in California. The headlines read: “Congressman Kim is disliked, even by Korean-Americans.” Frustrated, I asked the leaders of the Congressional Republicans why I was being attacked all the time. Their advice was that I should always be careful, since there was no way for me to avoid becoming a news item for the reason that I was the first Korean as well as the only Asian Republican in Congress.

Eventually, the continuing personal attacks started to make me unconsciously cautious of the Korean-American community, where too many rumors had been circulated. My popularity among Korean Americans could not help falling for a while.

Later, I proposed an amendment that made elderly immigrants, once they applied for permanent residency, eligible for the same benefits as permanent residents have. However, this was voted down after strong opposition that it would lead to an administrative problem caused by increased applications filed in a hurry by those who sought government benefits. This led to another false report in the Korean-American press, that I proposed a bill that would make those without permanent residency lose eligibility and that it was voted down.

Letters and phone calls from Korean-Americans rushed in. Most of them asked, “Aren’t you a Korean? How can you do this? Don’t you have elderly parents?” I was too discouraged to want to defend myself any more, and I did not reply to any of the letters. Letters from the Caucasian constituency in my district also came. They overwhelmingly opposed my bill that makes the applicants of permanent residency eligible for benefits. They said, “Are you a representative of the U.S., or a representative of immigrants, who only thinks about giving government benefits to the elderly immigrants? Why should we give them Social Security monies for which we have saved throughout our lives?”

I avoided a bigger disaster by joining with Republican conservatives who strongly opposed illegal immigration. I made a speech in Congress, saying “I also came to the U.S. for the American dream. I came here legally. After a difficult process, now I am an American citizen. All the illegal immigrants who entered illegally should be arrested, deported to their own countries, and guided to come back to the U.S. legally like I did.

The mistake of pardoning those who entered the country illegally ― that is, those criminals who violated the U.S. law ― should not be repeated.” After this, I received thunderous applause from Republicans. However, I was regarded as an anti-immigrant enemy of immigrants from then on. Later, this became my fatal political burden.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

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