Washington — More and more illegal aliens are being arrested by American authorities at the Mexican border. The situation undercuts already-troubled relations between the United States and Mexico. Meanwhile, a long-awaited immigration-reform bill, which many think could ease the pressure, lies stalled in the House Judiciary Committee. Prospects are fading fast for immigration reform in the United States.
Just as record numbers of illegal aliens are crossing the Mexican border, efforts to pass a reform bill are stumbling on Capitol Hill.
The impasse on reform is raising a cry from many members of Congress, especially those from the South and West. They claim the flow of illegal entrants has gotten completely out of control.
Federal sources now estimate that between 3 million and 4 million illegal immigrants, a record high, will slip into the US this year.
Thousands of these immigrants settle peacefully into US communities and make do with low-paying, dreary jobs. But a number of congressmen, such as Rep. Ron Packard (R) of California, charge that many illegals also disrupt job markets, crowd local jails and hospitals, and raise the rate of crime in border communities.
The Joint Economic Committee of Congress begins three days of hearings today on the effect of illegal aliens on the job market. Rep. James H. Scheuer (D) of New York, a member of the committee, said on the eve of the hearings:
``Unless our nation adopts a coherent policy to cope with the explosion of illegal immigration, our nation's economy, labor market, educational system, and health programs will be overwhelmed.''
Most illegals are Mexicans who infiltrate across the border into Texas and California, then fan out to job markets across the US. But in recent months, Mexico has also become the major conduit into the US for thousands of illegal aliens from at least 55 other nations, including China, India, and Colombia.
Many illegals from Mexico stay in the US for only a few months, then return home. But US officials estimate that this year about 750,000 of those who enter the country will stay here permanently. A growing number of illegal entrants bring their families with them.
This new immigration crisis comes at an awkward time for both the US and Mexico. In the past few days, US officials have lashed out at Mexico for its lax attitude on a variety of serious and growing bilateral problems: drug smuggling, criminal violence along the border, and widespread corruption among Mexican officials in areas next to the US.
Mexican officials quickly repudiated the US charges. Yet Mexico finds itself in a difficult position, with its economy staggered by rising international debt, collapsing oil prices, and last year's devastating earthquake. Illegal immigration and drugs may be unlawful; but analysts note that drugs provide scarce funds to that country, and immigration serves as a safety valve for Mexico's hard-pressed economy.
Meanwhile, US officials find themselves nearly as helpless as Mexico in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. They say that without enactment of legislation making it unlawful for illegal aliens to work in the US they cannot stem the tide.
The rapid increase in illegal immigration caught many in Washington by surprise. Just over 92,000 illegal aliens were nabbed along the US-Mexican border last December, but that proved to be a low point. Arrests climbed to 131,496 in January, 140,487 in February, 163,452 in March, and 167,421 in April. By year's end, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates, 1.8 million illegal entrants will be taken into custody.
INS Commissioner Alan Nelson says that for every alien his officers capture, it is estimated two slip through. Using that ratio, 3.6 million aliens are expected to escape detection and enter the US this year.
Two months ago, experts were optimistic that immigration reform would soon be passed by Congress. But their hopes are rapidly fading. The turnaround in the bill's prospects can be traced to the House of Representatives, where Democratic leaders have added one delay after another. Here's how events have unfolded:
Last summer, President Reagan's advisers presented him with three options: (1) Support strong immigration reform; (2) support a watered-down version of reform; and (3) oppose reform. The President opted for No. 1 -- strong reform.
In September, encouraged by support from the White House, the Senate passed a far-reaching reform bill.
In November, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law approved a reform bill and sent it to the full committee for markup.
In January, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged President Reagan to get personally involved in the reform effort.
In March, after meeting with Mr. Reagan, Mr. Rodino vowed to move ahead with the bill in his committee in early April. In April, however, he delayed markup of the bill until late May.
In May, Rodino, at the urging of 16 Democratic congressmen, delayed markup until the second week of June.
The June markup date is now called ``tentative,'' and insiders express doubt that the bill will ever reach the House floor.
Reformers are indignant. Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California charged the other day on the House floor that the bill is being ``held hostage . . . for reasons that have more to do with ideology than public policy.''
The reason given for delay by the 16 Democrats who blocked the bill was to work out problems related to agricultural workers. The Senate version would exempt growers of perishable crops, mostly in California, from the ban on hiring undocumented workers.
In 1984 both the House and Senate voted for such an exemption. But it is firmly opposed by many liberals, as well as many Hispanic lobbying groups, unionists, and others who favor higher wages for agricultural workers. Without undocumented workers, it is argued, farmers would be forced to pay more to native US workers.
It's a potent argument with many congressmen. But it probably is not enough to beat the bill on the floor.
That's why opponents of the bill are doing their best to stall the measure in the Judiciary Committee, Congressman Lungren argues. It's their last, best hope of blocking immigration reform.