Aliens: more benefit than burden

The plight of the unemployed, underemployed, and persecuted from Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere, whether defined as refugees or undocumented aliens, has been instrumental in prompting a reconsideration of traditional policies and practices in the admission of aliens into the United States. Although the evidence is somewhat ambiguous, it appears from a number of sophisticated studies that the negative impact of these aliens on this country has been greatly exaggerated; indeed, their benefit to the US seems to outweigh their burden. Nevertheless, hysteria about them remains shrill.

To take one example, the problem of undocumented Mexican aliens has been troublesome in relations between the US and its southern neighbor. The impact on the US economy of undocumented Mexicans as well as the protection of their welfare persist as controversial issues. In the absence of effective bilateral measures, the US government has relied on proposals to reform federal policies and laws.

The final report of the President's Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, issued earlier this year, unfortunately failed to focus sharply on fundamental causes - the ''push'' factors, primarily poverty, concentrated in identifiable areas of the countries of origin, and the ''pull'' factors, particularly the availability of employment in the US. Attention to the essential dynamics of undocumented migration would have confirmed that the primary emphasis of future US immigration policy should be on how best to help other countries to follow the lead of Mexico in seeking to develop new industries, in curbing population, and in undertaking land reform.

Lost by the commission were imaginative proposals for substantial, rather than trivial, increases in the worldwide immigration quota; protection of the welfare of aliens as a value in itself and to discourage illegal immigration; discreet foreign assistance to alleviate poverty in targeted traditional sources of illegal immigration; and adjustment assistance to mitigate the relatively limited US unemployment attributable to displacement by aliens.

Short of undertaking comprehensive reforms in the archaic immigration laws, a preferred resolution of the issue of undocumented aliens would be to rely on the enforcement of labor codes, to encourage recruitment by organized labor of aliens, and to enforce laws, including the Farm Labor Contractor Registration Act, that discourage trafficking in aliens by professional contractors, often called ''coyotes.''

Instead, the report of the presidential commission put undue emphasis on strengthened enforcement by the border patrol. There is evidence that the substantial, expensive strengthening of the ''tortilla curtain'' on the Mexican border, for example, would be only minimally effective. Because of diversionary pressures on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the 1980 ''refugee crisis,'' and because of the government's decision to put a hold on alien roundups during the 1980 census count, interior policing of undocumented aliens was substantially restricted. Significantly, however, there is no reliable evidence that the flow of undocu-mented aliens increased substantially during the same period of time.

President Reagan has proposed a series of reforms which, while they draw upon the commission report, reflect a more hospitable attitude toward aliens. They also reflect a perception of the difficulty of enforcing laws against undocumented aliens without trampling upon the rights of documented residents of similar physical features. Because the reforms strike a compromise on many issues, it is anybody's guess how the Congress will respond.

The protection of the human rights of undocumented aliens seems both practical and mandatory, as the US Civil Rights Commission has reminded the federal government. In the words of Eileen Heaphy, Colombian desk officer of the State Department: ''It may be quicker and more effective in the long run to attack the problem the human rights way - guaranteeing that no one sector of American society profits by illegal abuse of another sector. And we only need to enforce the laws already on the books to do that."

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