Equality at the turnstile

SOMETIME after the new Congress convenes next month, reform of United States immigration policies will again surface as an issue. Well it should. The US should have carefully considered policies to cover all who migrate to its shores.

Sen. Alan Simpson, co-sponsor of immigration reform in this year's Congress, plans to introduce similar legislation next year. He may split the most controversial proposals into two parts: one to sanction employers who hire illegal aliens, another to legalize aliens who arrived in the United States before a specific date.

How the nation decides to treat people who seek to be new Americans might well depend on whether they have come legally or illegally, and for what reason. But a consistency ought to exist: No differentiation should be made on the basis of national origin. A new look at the problem is required to reach national agreement on what US policies should be toward aliens in the US illegally, and toward future immigrants, legal and illegal.

It is often noted that the US now has no effective means to stop the annual influx of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Less frequently realized is that inconsistencies abound, often depending on which nation the immigrants left. Some 125,000 Cubans who came to the US during the 1980 Mariel boatlift this week have been offered the first step toward eventual citizenship. The action is based on a 1960s law designed to provide citizenship to Cubans then fleeing Castro; it permits only Cubans to be offered citizenship this way. At the same time, the US now seeks to return to Cuba an additional 1,500 people adjudged criminals or insane.

Since the end of the Vietnam war the United States has accepted thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Kampuchea, and other parts of the Indochinese peninsula; too often, however, they have found considerable difficulty in gaining acceptance from other Americans in their new homeland. Earlier this year the US agreed to accept from Vietnam, at a stepped-up rate, the children that American servicemen fathered during the war.

On the other hand, some 7,000 Haitians who also fled dictatorship and poverty are not eligible for US citizenship under existing law. The US Supreme Court agreed this week to hear the case of those Haitians protesting that they were held in federal detention centers after they arrived in the United States while their petitions for asylum were being considered. Originally the detainees numbered 1,800, but some have been released since the original suit was filed.

Several thousand refugees from El Salvador and other nations of Central America live in hiding in the US. If caught, they can be shipped back to their homeland, on grounds that in the eyes of the US government they have come to the US to seek employment, rather than to escape tyranny and terrorism. They insist otherwise. To prevent them from being caught, many Americans, and several US churches, are running a 20th-century parallel to the pre-Civil War underground railway.

Then there are the illegal Mexican immigrants. Hundreds of thousands come each year - perhaps a million or more. The largest individual source of illegal immigrants, they are the most serious immigration challenge to the US.

Politics and honest differences of opinion prevented passage during 1984 of major immigration reform. But the problems of illegal migration and inconsistency of treatment remain. They now must be dealt with.

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