Reagan's Mexican trouble: too many illegal 'guests'

Like the ban on prohibition in the 1920s, the US Immigration Restriction Act on the Mexican border isn't working. Some estimate a million Mexicans are illegally entering the US each year. Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and President Reagan will discuss what to do about it on the former's two-day visit here June 8 and 9.

A Reagan Cabinet committee has sent unofficial recommendations to the White House and these, in turn, follow the report of a two-year study for President Carter headed by Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University. This declared the situation "out of control." President Ford also had a Cabinet committee on illegals, which reported in December 1976 that the immigration act is "ineffective," and said that estimates of the number of illegal immigrants run to "several million yearly." Decades of neglect seem pushing the situation in the direction of a national crisis. By one estimate, a fifth of America's projected 300 million population in 50 years will be immigrants who have arrived since the latest Reagan report -- or their descendants.

Mr. Reagan set up a four-member Cabinet committee to review the problem after the Hesburgh report. Attorney General William French Smith, the chairman, has just returned from an inspection tour of the border. The understaffed US Border Patrol is able to put only 350 officers on duty at any shift on the 2,000-mile Mexican border and reduced appropriations for two years in a row have resulted in a shortage of gasoline for routine patrols.

The Comptroller General made a report to Congress Nov. 5, 1980, describing population pressure in Mexico. It said:

* About 62 percent of Mexico's labor force is unemployed or underemployed.

* Mexico's annual population growth rate is 3.4 percent.

* An estimated 700,000 new job-seekers flood the market annually.

* A high proportion of the population is under 15, indicating pressure for jobs will continue.

As president-elect, Reagan met Mr. Lopez Portillo on Jan. 5. Now they will resume talks on immigration, oil, and other matters. In an interview with Walter Cronkite March 3, the US President expressed interest in a revived guest-worker, or "bracero," program. The US had such a program from 1942 to 1964, but dropped it. Incidentally, the guest-worker programs in Europe during the 1970s have either lapsed or are severely curtailed.

This week Reagan called in Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, who is chairman of a subcommittee on immigration and was a member of the 16-member Hesburgh Commission. White House counselor Edwin S. Meese III told a reporters' group at breakfast June 3 that the President wants to keep options open to work out an agreement with the Mexican President. In May the Cabinet- level advisory committee led by Attorney General Smith outlined the recommendations it prepared for the President, to be published after the Lopez Portillo conferences. Its recommendations include doubling the annual limit of legal immigrants from Mexico and Canada, giving amnesty to illegal immigrants now in the US, imposing sanctions on US employers who hire illegal immigrants, establishing an experimental system of "temporary" visas for guest workers, strengthening the US Border Patrol, and giving immigrants some form of identification cards that could not be easily counterfeited.

The task force's bold recommendations acknowledge difficulties ahead. They admit that the proposal for a special quota of admissions over the next five years "postpones the time when the US population is stabilized" and that it also "invites more legal job-seekers into the US in a period of high unemployment."

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