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COMMENTARY : INS May Need Its Own Reforms to Keep Up With Immigration Act

May 25, 1989|FRANK del OLMO | Del Olmo is a Times editorial writer and columnist

Three years after Congress enacted the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, billing it as the answer to immigration problems that had been festering for 30 years, people are calling for new laws to deal with problems that the authors of the law did not anticipate.

The reform act, based on the assumption that jobs are what lure illegal immigrants here, made it unlawful for employers to hire them. To balance this restrictionist intent, the law included an "amnesty" for illegal aliens, allowing them to legalize their status if they had been here since 1982.

Many critics questioned how well this simple approach to a complex phenomenon would work. But the law was enacted because immigration had become a political issue, requiring some kind of action. It has not taken long for the shiny new law to become tarnished in the real world.

It is increasingly clear that the new law has not stopped illegal immigration. There has been a decrease in the number of people trying to slip into the United States since the law went into effect, but hundreds of people continue to be arrested daily sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border. In the first full year after the new law went into effect, 940,000 illegal immigrants were arrested there, down from 1.6 million in 1986 but still one of the highest number of arrests ever recorded.

So officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service are talking tough about new measures to keep unwanted people out. One example is the agency's decision to publicize a drainage ditch planned for the Otay Mesa south of San Diego as its newest weapon against smugglers. In fact, the ditch is a routine flood-control project needed by Tijuana as much as by San Diego. Mexican officials even cooperated in planning it until the INS made a big deal out of the matter, turning it into a political embarrassment for them.

If the INS wants to improve border enforcement, it doesn't need new fortifications. And it doesn't need more Border Patrol agents, since almost 1,000 were hired under the 1986 immigration law and there is only scant evidence that they are being used more efficiently than their predecessors. What's needed is a reorganization of the chief agency charged with enforcing the law--the INS.

Chief among the INS problems, bureaucratically speaking, is the fact that it is one of several agencies, along with the Customs Service and Coast Guard, charged with keeping our borders secure. It will surprise nobody that there are sometimes lapses in coordination among so many agencies. That is why the General Accounting Office has several times called for their consolidation into a single border management agency. Congress has been reluctant to pursue the plan because of pressure from government employee unions that fear a loss of jobs. Still, it is a worthwhile idea.

But beyond better border control, this country needs to put more thought and money into absorbing immigrants. At present, this responsibility also falls to the INS, but it never gets the financial support and attention that the agency's police functions do. That is one reason the reform act's amnesty program has been so haphazardly run: nobody's ever tried to legalize so many people before on such a large scale, even in the INS.

I can't help but wonder if naturalization wouldn't be handled better by another agency, say a bureau of immigration in the Labor Department. A new immigration agency would not add needless bureaucracy, either, for it would have many other important responsibilities.

Although most Americans see immigration as a problem, in the near future the problem may be that we don't have enough immigrants. That could happen if our birth rate continues to decline while our native-born population continues to grow older and live longer. We may then need more young workers--not fewer--from countries such as Mexico, and that means we'll need an agency to assess our labor needs and regulate the entry of people to fill those jobs.

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