LOS ANGELES — DESPITE the Bush administration's plans to beef up enforcement along the United States-Mexican border, many immigration specialists expect the flow of illegal migrants into the US to continue virtually unabated.
Some note it would take a far more massive buildup of agents along the 1,900-mile frontier to slow the wave of illegal immigration that is once again approaching historic highs. Others believe that tougher enforcement won't help without efforts to address the huge economic disparities between the two countries.
"Efforts to stop things at the border in the past have been Band Aid solutions," says Frank Bean, a sociologist at the University of Texas. "It is hard to see how this will be any different."
"It is a good step," says Harold Ezelle, the former head of the western region of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now a consultant. "But it is almost too little too late."
In a high-profile swing through southern states, Attorney General William Barr last week outlined plans to add 300 agents along the US-Mexico border as well as 200 investigators to pursue immigrants suspected of crimes or help crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.
New lights, sensors, and other equipment would be purchased as well. Several hundred other INS officers would be hired as inspectors or to help process legal immigrants at INS offices.
The new initiative comes at a time when illegal immigration is believed to be rising and concern about the influx has become a potent political issue. Officials in some border states, including California, complain that illegal immigrants are adding to financial burdens in a time of recession.
Republican presidential aspirants Patrick Buchanan and David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klansman, have stressed similar themes. Critics see political motivations in the Bush administration move - which, at worst, they contend, panders to anti-immigrant sentiment.
"We're worried the administration is trying to put the focus on immigrants as being responsible for our social and economic troubles," says Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic group.
Jorge Bustamante, president of the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, says American politicians declare a crisis at the southern border every time there is a recession. Studies of northward-bound immigrants by his researchers, conducted in the Tijuana-San Diego area, suggest no recent jump in illegal migration.
Others dispute this assessment. Arrests by the US Border Patrol - considered a rough gauge of the level of illegal immigration - have been rising. Last year apprehensions along the southern border reached their highest point in four years, nearly 1.1 million.
This was still below the record 1.6 million arrested in 1986, just before enactment of the sweeping immigration reform law intended to curb the flow by imposing fines on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. But this year they are edging up again - dramatically so in San Diego, which accounts for nearly half the nation's illegal crossings.
APPREHENSIONS there the past four months are up 18 percent over a year ago. "Whatever difference the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) made, it seems to have worn off," says Mr. Bean.
In addition to the 300 new agents the administration wants, the White House budget request for 1993 includes funding for 200 other Border Patrol positions. Even if Congress were to go along with this request, however, analysts say the border will still be porous. The additional manpower would bring the agency up to 4,200 agents, about the size of the Washington D.C. police force. Advocates of tougher enforcement point out that 1,000 new agents were supposed to be added when IRCA was passed in 1986.
"Every little bit helps, and in this case it is a little bit," says David Simcox, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C.
To cut down on the proliferation of fraudulent documents, the Justice Department will reissue counterfeit resistant green cards for immigrant workers and redesign employment authorization documents.
INS officials have long argued that the employer sanctions provisions of IRCA, which require companies to verify that workers may legally work in the US, have been undercut by widespread use of fake papers.
Experts say the new changes will only minimally impact counterfeiting, though, since two of the most widely copied IDs, social security cards and drivers' licenses, are unaffected.