Washington — The other day the government wanted to know how many Iranian students were in the United States. The Immegration and Naturalization Service (INS) couldn't say. The agency, which inspects 270 million people each year as they enter the United States, has been vainly trying to get its files computerized for years. No funds. (It has trouble even with paper clips.) The agency decided to make a quick check, however, and called in 56,000 Iranians before a federal court stopped the count. So far as it went if found that 10,000 of those it examined were is violation of their immigrant status. That's one in five. How about the others? How about immigrants in general? Nobody knows.
There has been no breakdown of enforcement of an American law so wide, so flagrant, so manifest since prohibition. Last year a million illegals were turned back at the borders and for each one stopped probably one or two others slipped in. The New York Times has just run five consecutive public-service-type articles (starting on page one and continuing inside to the awe-inspiring length of 5,000 words each) factually describing the situation. It is an admirable, low-keyed exposure. The person you feel sorry for is the lonely border patrolman keeping his disgareeable and possibly dangerous vigil out there in the night, as a soldier on guard whose country has forgotten him. Not forgotten exactly; just unwilling to think about him.
The trouble is, America is uncertain about immigration. There is the Statue of Liberty inviting the world's hungry masses to enter. Who wants to build a wall along the border or demand identification cards? There are laws admitting immigrants, the most generous laws in the world, 170,000 annually from the Eastern Hemisphere, 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere and no single country's share to exceed 20,000. All fine on paper but every time there is a refugee problem exceptions are proposed. There are relatives and hardship cases and favored groups. Employers want cheap labor. Population growth rate in the United States is about one percent, one- third that of contiguous Mexico. World population is currently around 4.4 billion and will be 6 billion by 2000. Who will feed them? The Commission on World hunger under Sol Linowitz presented a sobering report to President Carter last month declaring that fully 25 percent of the present population is already hungry or undernourished. They look to the United States. They want in.
The Time's survey shows near-demoralization in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Not only the commissioner but the assistant commissioner has quit. Records show that there is frustration, brutality, and corruption in the field and, what is more dangerous, apparent lack of will in the parent Justice Department to correct matters. An investigation is underway and something may be done. But how can things be put to rights permanently until the nation itself decides what it wants done on the larger issue? "Guard the pass!" the nation tells the lonely sentry, "only don't bother us about it."