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Congress Gets Another Try at Immigration Problem

September 01, 1986|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

Immigration-reform legislation cleared most congressional hurdles in both 1982 and 1984, only to die under the weight of opposition from special-interest groups wanting the uncontrolled flood of desperately poor illegals across the border to continue. The next few weeks will determine whether, on the third try, Congress will finally live up to its responsibilities.

The Senate has passed a bill designed to stem the influx of illegal immigrants. Similar legislation is expected to reach the House floor this month. But, despite evidence of growing public concern, there is grave danger that the legislation will become lost in the 99th Congress' pre-election rush to adjournment.

It has long been recognized that the influx of illegal aliens cannot be stopped merely by hiring more border patrolmen and conducting more immigration sweeps, important as such enforcement measures are. The illegals come to this country to get work; drying up the supply of jobs is the best way to deal with the problem.

The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, created by Congress in response to President Jimmy Carter's proposal for immigration reform, said in 1981 that illegal immigration was reaching proportions of serious consequence to the American economy and society. It proposed that the front door of legal immigration be opened a bit wider, but called for employer sanctions and other steps to remove the magnetic lure of jobs for illegal entrants.

The commission, like other reform advocates, also recognized that some form of amnesty against deportation should be provided for law-abiding illegals who have been here long enough to put down roots. Otherwise they would live in fear of exposure, and would thus be vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Polls have consistently shown strong public support for legislation embodying these principles--even among Latinos, according to some opinion surveys. There is strong support among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Carter are on record in favor of legislation combining employer sanctions with amnesty provisions, and President Reagan got on board after some false starts.

Yet, in the face of obstructionist tactics by some Latino politicians and by business and farm interests that profit from the willingness of illegal aliens to work for sub-normal pay, Congress has been unable to get its act together. Meanwhile, the problem is growing worse.

Illegal aliens come from all sorts of places: Asia, South and Central America, the Caribbean and even Europe. The border-crossers from Mexico, however, are the largest single group.

The number of apprehended illegals has grown from 1.2 million in 1983 and 1984 to 1.3 million in 1985 and a projected 1.8 million this year. Immigration officials believe that for every border-crosser who is caught two or three get through.

Nobody knows for sure how many illegal immigrants now live in the United States; estimates range generally from 3 million to 12 million.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, half of the undocumented persons in this country are in California, and 75% of these are of Mexican heritage. Influential Western farm interests are heavily dependent on illegal-immigrant workers, but most illegals end up in the cities.

The heaviest concentration is in Los Angeles County, where more than 900,000 immigrants--legal and illegal--settled during the 1970s alone. More than two-thirds of the 645,000 jobs added in the county during that decade were absorbed by recent immigrants--a substantial number of whom were illegals.

There is no question that the vast majority of illegal aliens from Latin American countries want to work. But most are illiterate in English and are ill-equipped for anything but unskilled jobs. Thus they gravitate into low-paying jobs in the manufacturing and service industries.

Many if not most experts argue that illegal aliens so far have been a net plus to the economy--that they take jobs that native-born Americans don't want, and that their cheap labor has enabled some manufacturers to remain here instead of moving abroad. It is also argued that, educational costs aside, illegals are not heavy users of social services and therefore are not a burden on other taxpayers.

But of course you can't set education costs aside. The costs of schooling for children of illegal aliens is great and growing. And these costs, studies indicate, are nowhere near covered by their taxes.

Rightly or wrongly, police in cities like San Diego and El Paso blame illegals for a substantial percentage of crimes in their communities. And many blacks and Latino Americans are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that their own job and pay opportunities are depressed by the steady influx of desperate newcomers.

It's relevant to note that wages for lower-skill manufacturing workers in Los Angeles are falling behind the national average precisely because of the low-paid illegals.

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