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COLUMN RIGHT / DEANE DANA : A New Climate for Control of Our Border : Clinton's and Feinstein's remarks offer a glimmer of hope for stopping illegal immigration.

June 01, 1993|DEANE DANA | Deane Dana is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Are we beginning to see at least a glimmer of understanding in Washington that illegal immigration, especially in the San Diego sector, is a serious problem for state and local governments?

President Clinton gave a hint of understanding while in San Diego when he said: "If you're going to have laws that you don't even try to enforce, then you shouldn't expect the state to pick up the tab." A day later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned of a "terrible backlash" unless the government stops the flow of illegal immigrants.

Until Washington does get serious, overworked and undermanned Border Patrol agents will continue to fight a losing battle and local governments will continue having to spend millions--$400 million in Los Angeles County alone--in costs generated by the estimated 500,000 foreigners who illegally enter California every year.

Washington's neglect is bipartisan and of many years standing. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was supposed to solve the problem by granting amnesty to those who could prove they had been in this country a specified period of time. It was akin to pumping a flat tire as the vehicle moves--futile at best. Congress did not strengthen the Border Patrol and the flood continued.

It is a literal human flood that pours across the border nightly in the San Diego sector. I have been to the 14-mile stretch numerous times and witnessed understaffed Border Patrol deployments trying to turn back 3,000 to 4,500 undocumented aliens a night. At least half evade capture. In fiscal 1992, the Border Patrol apprehended 565,581 people; one in five had been caught more than once. Worse, 12% to 15% of those who make it are criminals.

A one-month study of the Los Angeles County jail population in 1990 found that 11%--almost 2,000 of the 17,744 inmates--were here illegally. That figure has been reverified as current by the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee. It costs Los Angeles County $75 million a year to apprehend, try and incarcerate undocumented aliens charged with crimes.

More than half of these criminals who were tracked in a county/federal survey were deported or voluntarily returned to their countries of origin. Almost 80% re-entered the United States within one year and were again arrested; 87% of those arrests occurred in Los Angeles County.

During fiscal 1992, the smuggling of drugs across the border exploded upward. Drugs with a wholesale value of $151.9 million were seized--an incredible $120-million jump over fiscal 1991.

By continuing to look the other way, the federal government is tacitly endorsing the inhumane actions of "coyotes," unscrupulous people who gouge $250 or more from undocumented aliens on the flimsy promise they will get them across the border and on to their inland destinations. If they fail, the money is not returned, further impoverishing the would-be illegal immigrants. Coyotes think nothing of cramming dozens of men, women and children into suffocating vehicles for the journey north.

Even with sophisticated electronics, infrared sighting devices and other equipment, the present 1,077 Border Patrol agents serving the San Diego sector are overwhelmed. "Glimmers" of understanding in Washington won't help them. An additional 1,500 Border Patrol agents will.

Perhaps if taxpaying, legal residents understood the full economic impact that illegals have on our local economy, they would raise a louder protest. Included in the $400 million that the county spends for illegal immigrants is $92 million for their children born in county-operated hospitals--children who instantly become U.S. citizens. More than 65% of the 48,337 County Hospital births tracked by the Department of Health Services in 1990-91 were to undocumented mothers.

Only the federal government can control the border by bringing Border Patrol staffing up to adequate levels, by adequately reimbursing local governments for illegal immigration-generated costs and by developing the long-term economic actions that will end the need for undocumented immigrants to turn to the United States at any cost. Solid steps in the right direction would include passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and House Bill 1029 by Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) to authorize Border Patrol expansion, and his resolution, currently in the Judiciary Committee, seeking to amend the Constitution so citizenship will not be granted automatically to U.S.-born children of undocumented aliens.

Glimmers aren't enough. The public needs to send a real wake-up call to Washington. We can't afford to keep looking the other way.

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