LOS ANGELES — HOISTING bags of belongings and visions of a new life, several thousand illegal immigrants are entering the United States from Mexico each day in a renewed surge that threatens to mock laws designed to prevent it. After a lull in the late 1980s, the level of illegal entries along the nation's southern border is steadily rising again.
The surge is spurring a renewed debate in Congress over provisions of a sweeping 1986 law designed to curb the problem.
Critics argue that sanctions imposed on employers who hire unauthorized workers do not help control illegal immigration and are discriminatory. Supporters say they do some good but need strengthening. "I think the issue of employer sanctions is going to continue to be revisited," says Doris Meissner, an immigration specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Arrests by the US Border Patrol of unauthorized immigrants trying to enter the country from Mexico - a broad measure of the level of illegal immigration - are up. In the first six months of this fiscal year, 465,000 people were apprehended along the dusty 2,000-mile border.
That is only a slight increase over the same period a year ago (460,000) and remains substantially below the rate in 1986 (710,000), the record year for arrests at the border. But it is still the highest level in three years and continues an upward trend that followed what had been a sharp drop after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).
In the San Diego area, the nation's busiest illegal border-crossing zone, the numbers are more dramatic: In the first six months of this fiscal year, apprehensions rose 12 percent (216,000 to 242,000) over those for the first six months of 1990.
Border Patrol agents in the area average 1,800 arrests each day. Some of these represent the same people being caught more than once in the never-ending nocturnal game of cat-and-mouse between agents and immigrants.
Even so, federal officials estimate that for each person they catch, two others slip by. "There are just more people coming through," says Ted Swofford, a Border Patrol agent in San Diego.
Federal officials attribute the rise in illegal entries to enduring economic problems south of the border and to the proliferation of fraudulent documents, which allow immigrants to continually circumvent IRCA.
The statute requires employers to verify the status of new workers by demanding papers, such as a resident-alien card or Social Security card. Companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants can be penalized. If companies stop hiring them, the theory goes, illegals will stop coming.
But employers don't have to authenticate documents, which, officials from the Immigration and Natural Service (INS) say, is the problem: Forged papers are as easy to buy as tortillas.
"Employer sanctions have had an impact in reducing illegal immigration," says Duke Austin of the INS. "But they are definitely being eroded by fraudulent documentation."
To rectify that, sanctions supporters, such as Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, advocate making state drivers' licenses or some similar identification card more impervious to fraud and then using them as principal verification forms.
But civil-liberties groups and others argue that would be the first step toward establishing a national ID card, with all the Big Brother implications that implies. They have successfully blocked such efforts in the past.
Barriers are another focus of groups advocating tighter control of the border. The Federation for American Immigration Reform last week called for "replacing or reinforcing" fences along 75 miles of the border in Texas and California, where 90 percent of illegal entries occur. Attempts to erect barriers, however, draw stiff opposition from critics, who consider it the equivalent of building a Berlin Wall.
While efforts are under way to tighten employer sanctions, others want to eliminate them. Immigrant-rights advocates say that to avoid being fined, many employers refuse to hire anyone who appears foreign.
Their arguments are buttressed by a US General Accounting Office study last year that suggested fear of penalties has led employers to discriminate. "With sanctions, you have the worst possible outcome," says Cecelia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. "They aren't controlling illegal immigration, and they have this horrible side effect."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah will introduce legislation in May to repeal sanctions. The measure will seek to control illegal immigration by beefing up the Border Patrol from the current 3,900 agents to 6,600. And the bill will propose vigorous enforcement of existing labor laws to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
Congressional sources say this legislation too will be a tough sell; many lawmakers fear that, no matter how effective sanctions are, doing away with them would send the wrong signal and make the border even more porous.
Ultimately, analysts such as the Carnegie Endowment's Ms. Meissner say the only way to stop the migration will be to reduce the wage disparity between Mexico and the United States. That could come through such initiatives as the proposed North American free-trade zone. But nearly everyone agrees such wage reform is decades away.