THE immigration reform law, passed in 1986, has failed to seal the United States border with Mexico. That should surprise no one. Realists knew right along that the law was only one step toward dealing with the complex problem of illegal immigration. Still, Americans may wince at the continuing waves of border crossings.
While apprehensions of illegal immigrants dropped in 1987 - leading some to conclude that the law was taking hold - the number of border crashers caught by the Immigration and Naturalization Service is up nearly 15 percent this year.
Some 494,000 people were arrested by the Border Patrol from January through May. That may represent less than half of those who actually crossed the border illegally.
The INS still claims a net decrease, pointing out that this is down from the numbers preceeding passage of the law in 1986. But that's small consolation to those who had hoped the new law was going to staunch the flow of illegal immigrants.
It's much too early, however, to write off the statute as a failure. The amnesty period set up by the law, which ended in May, gave well over a million aliens who have lived in the US since 1982 an opportunity to become legal residents and eventually citizens. The other major facet of the law, sanctions against American employers who hire illegal aliens, took effect June 1. Since then, employers have been liable to fines, not merely warnings, for a first offense.
Agricultural employers won't be subject to the same kind of fines until Sept. 1. Many current illegal immigrants are crossing at points in California and Texas where farm workers have traditionally entered the country. They are headed for harvests now beginning, and they can be hired without the threat of immediate sanctions by the INS.
If the increase in immigration were to continue into next year, when all employers will be under the full force of the law, cause for concern would be deeper.
To avoid a fine, employers have to verify they have checked the identification papers of everyone who applies for work. But they are not held responsible for authenticating those papers - passports, alien registration cards, Social Security cards. The market in faked identification documents is flourishing.
The law's framers anticipated this difficulty, and wrote in a mandatory review after three years. At that point tightening measures, such as reprinting Social Security cards on paper that is harder to duplicate or starting a program of telephone verification of documents, could be implemented.
Meanwhile, the INS is revving up its fraud investigations and has succeeded in shutting down many counterfeiters, but others are always ready to exploit the lucrative market. More manpower for the thinly stretched service is another option open to lawmakers.
While law enforcement can mobilize against specific illegalities like fraud, it can't address the greatest impulse behind illegal immigration - the powerful lure of a decent wage north of the border. Mexico's galloping inflation, huge population, and dismal employment picture continue to propel people northward. The minimum wage in the US can look lordly to a Mexican used to earning $5 a day or less.
The immigration law also set up a commission to study changes in US trade, aid, and investment policies that could help Mexico get back on its economic feet. This effort could stretch over a decade or two.
Americans are learning that the problem at their southern border defies a quick legislative remedy. The immigration reform act remains a positive, humane step. Other steps will be called for.
People's aspirations for a better life put them on the move. Compassion, not just legal constraint, is needed.