Washington — For immigrants, America is still the welcoming light of the world. We take in twice as many new residents every year as do all other nations combined. Most wig shops in the country, for instance, are now run by native Koreans; much of the restaurant help here in Washington is from Central America.
But the United States now has some important and difficult choices to make on immigration, say experts. Immigrants from many places are likely to flood us in the years ahead. How do we protect our open-door ideals without being swamped?
''If we postpone rational reform too long, we risk a repeat of the 1920s,'' when anti-immigrant feelings resulted in blatantly xenophobic policies, says John Higham, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University.
For the first 100 years of its existence, the United States had few immigration laws. Almost anyone who could get here was allowed to settle, no questions asked.
This country's rich land quickly became a magnet for the world's masses. About 250,000 people came here between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1819 . Between 1830 and 1860, 4.5 million immigrants landed on US soil, according to government estimates.
But as the flow of immigration increased, its composition changed. Most early settlers were from Northern and Western Europe (in 1790, 75 percent of all Americans were of British stock). By the peak immigration years of the early 20 th century, about 70 percent of new residents were from Italy, Hungary, and other Eastern European nations.
Along with this change came resentment from those already here, and the first immigration restrictions. ''The feeling was: 'We don't want 'em - they're not like the folks that made this country great,' '' says Lawrence Fuchs, a Brandeis professor and director of the 1981 Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.
A blatantly racist law passed in 1882 banned immigration of Chinese laborers. It remained in effect until 1943. The 1921 National Origins Law set strict country-by-country immigration quotas, greatly restricting the flow of new residents.
Although there was some softening in the law after World War II, it wasn't until 1965 that Congress dismantled country quotas, establishing in its place an immigration system with a general ceiling.
''Immigration policy is more nondiscriminatory now than at any time since laws were enacted,'' says Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Today, foreigners who are immediate relatives of US citizens are admitted to this country without limit. Other immigrants are let in according to a preference system that weighs job skills and distant relations and allows only 270,000 people a year.
Due to various special events such as the Cuban boatlift, legal immigration to the US (including refugees) has varied from 500,000 to 800,000 annually during the last five years. These figures are almost as high as those from the peak years of 1900-'10.
''As a refuge and a land of opportunity, the US remains the world's No. 1 magnet,'' concluded the 1981 Select Commission on Immigration.
It is ironic that illegal aliens are creating a crisis in US immigration policy, even as legal immigration reaches high levels.
The facts and figures have been well-publicized: some 2 million foreigners now sneak into the US every year. Although not all stay, the permanent illegal population is now put at 3 million to 5 million by the INS and other experts.
What is perhaps less well-known is that the illegals are ''not all just Mexicans wading across the Rio Grande,'' says Dr. Higham of Johns Hopkins.
Some 50 to 60 percent of the illegals are Mexican, say experts. About 25 percent are from other Latin American countries. The rest are from all over the world.
For instance, ''there is reportedly a substantial illegal flow of Asians across the Canadian border,'' says Michael Teitelbaum, an immigration expert at the Sloan Foundation.
Foreigners who enter on a temporary visa can overstay their visit with virtual impunity, he notes.
Driven by world population growth (Latin America's population is predicted to increase 130 percent by 2025), the flow of illegal immigrants will increase in years ahead unless controls are enacted.
Almost every expert on the subject agrees that the now-overwhelmed INS should be strengthened to deal with the problem.
The Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill now in Congress, would also help check the flow by cutting back on the lure of US jobs, invoking sanctions against US employers who knowingly hire aliens.
Other suggestions usually center on some type of guest worker program. Besides these approaches, many immigration experts are at a loss for solutions. One positive sign, some historians note, is that anti-immigrant feelings have so far played almost no part in the current immigration debate.
''We no longer have the emotional fear of immigrants we had in the early 20th century,'' says Higham.