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The INS and Illegal Aliens: an Old, Distorted Story

October 19, 1986|Martin Hill | Martin Hill is an assistant editor for San Diego Magazine.

SAN DIEGO — Congressional agreement last week on landmark immigration legislation clears the way for several million aliens in the United States to achieve legal status. But the changes will not end the debate about the social and economic effects of illegal aliens.

Three decades ago we were hearing the same concerns: A rising tide of illegal immigration from Mexico was threatening U.S. security. Illegal aliens were disrupting our economy, taking jobs from Americans and causing labor unrest. They were responsible for communist subversion and the increase of crime along the country's southern border.

A weekly news magazine noted then that according to press accounts, labor leaders and Justice Department officials, undocumented aliens had created "a grave social problem involving murder, prostitution, robbery and a gigantic narcotics infiltration." Testifying before a congressional budget hearing, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official claimed that 100 "communists and ex-reds" jumped the border each day.

Now they are more likely to be labelled terrorists, but otherwise the same claims are made today about undocumented migrants. We are asked to believe that illegal aliens are responsible for a 5% rise in crime last year, in the case of my city, San Diego; that the same aliens are cramming San Diego County jails, sapping public benefit programs, smuggling drugs, and--as Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich has alluded--scattering terrorist bombs.

There is little evidence to support these claims. The FBI's National Crime Index released in August, for instance, showed that San Diego's rise in crime, attributed to undocumented aliens, was matched by a 5% crime increase experienced nationwide last year, including places where illegal immigration is not a problem.

Most of the information disseminated today about illegal immigration is the result of conjecture, half-truths and plain racist sentiment. In 1953, the INS used these same claims to sway public opinion in favor of its Border Patrol. Criticized as an inefficient, ineffective bureaucratic agency--as its parent, the INS, is today--the patrol was on the verge of extinction through a series of congressional budget cuts. Then came "Operation Wetback."

The name of this nationwide sweep for illegal aliens speaks for itself. After stirring up public resentment against Mexican immigrants with a large public-relations campaign, the INS embarked on what became a civil-rights nightmare for America's Latino communities. By 1955, the INS was claiming it had solved the "wetback problem" by deporting or "voluntarily returning" hundreds of thousands of Latinos to Mexico. Not all of them were in the country illegally, however; many were lawful immigrants. A substantial number were U.S. citizens who were deprived not only of their rights as citizens, but of their country as well. But the Border Patrol was saved.

No one can deny that the failure of the Mexican economy is driving new scores of immigrants north to cross our borders illegally. Nor can anyone deny that the flow must be controlled. But it must be understood that the INS is a government agency that carries out its responsibilities in response to which way the political winds blow. It is led by a small cadre of presidentially appointed commissioners who often have no background at all in immigration matters or law enforcement.

Despite INS claims to the contrary, the fact remains that no one really knows how many illegal aliens reside in this country, or what their impact is on crime, the economy, the labor market or the public-benefits system. A U.S. General Accounting Office survey in 1981 reported undocumented population estimates ranging from about half a million to as high as 12 million, a spread so wide as to be meaningless. About the same time the House Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy narrowed that population estimate to between 3.5 million and 6 million. In the mid-1970s, the INS abandoned as fruitless a $1-million attempt to survey the illegal alien population.

For each study that says illegal aliens are taking jobs from Americans and sapping the public dole, there is another saying they create jobs and pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Furthermore, because of this country's slow population growth, it is now expected we will be forced to import foreign labor to fill jobs by the year 2000.

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