WASHINGTON — IMMIGRANTS, long welcomed as folk heroes into the United States, now find themselves at the uncomfortable center of controversy.
President Clinton and Congress are under increasing public pressure to reduce the number of new immigrants, toughen border enforcement, and turn away aliens who file bogus claims of political asylum.
Critics call this new antiforeigner attitude an ``immigration panic'' fueled by prejudice and misinformation. Others say Americans are simply trying to slow down the rate of change.
The altered perception of immigrants began with the recent economic recession. Many Americans worried that immigrants were grabbing scarce jobs and forcing down wage rates.
Also fueling US anxiety were a rash of violent acts involving recent immigrants, including the bombing of New York's World Trade Center. Cries for reform swept through Congress.
Responding to these concerns, the president this week appointed former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas to search for answers as chair of the US Commission on Immigration Reform. Mr. Clinton calls immigration ``one of the most important and complex issues facing our country.''
Ms. Jordan will have to work fast. Many bills, some calling for drastic change, are pending in Congress. Analysts predict a Capitol Hill showdown could come this spring.
Among the most-controversial proposals being floated is a bill introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. The senator would slash immigration levels by nearly two-thirds to 300,000 a year.
The tide of immigrants to America has significantly expanded since the late 1970s, when the US was accepting about 500,000 each year. By 1992, that number climbed to 810,635, plus some 300,000 illegal aliens.
Congress and the White House are examining three major areas:
* Illegal immigration. Because of lax border enforcement, at least 2.3 million persons entered and remained in the US illegally during the past 10 years. Congress has authorized 450 new Border Patrol agents to supplement the current, thinly stretched force of 3,995.
* Legal immigration. A law passed in 1990 boosted the number of new arrivals. Some in Congress now want to reverse that decision.
* Political asylum. Getting into the US can be as easy as saying: ``I want political asylum.'' Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York calls today's system ``a joke.'' Thousands of bogus claims are filed by visitors annually. Many aliens file claims, leave the airport, and vanish.
Congress may spearhead new immigration efforts. Doris Meissner, the newly appointed head of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, says the administration expects to propose no new major legislation.
However, as new patrol officers come aboard, the INS is exploring ways to duplicate the success recently achieved against illegal immigration in El Paso, Texas.
THE El Paso experiment, called ``Operation Blockade,'' caught much of official Washington by surprise when it was launched Sept. 19 by 400 officers of the US Border Patrol. The results along the 20-mile El Paso sector were quick and dramatic.
Illegal border crossings by Mexicans and others plunged by 85 percent. Arrests of illegal aliens trying to leave the El Paso airport fell from 1,000 a day to 8-to-15 per day. Crime rates fell in El Paso by 16 percent, with auto thefts down 50 percent.
El Paso belied long-held convictions in Washington that ``you can't do much about'' illegal immigration.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which examined the El Paso program, says it taught Washington some important les-sons.
Previously, officers had allowed illegals to cross the border, then apprehended them within the first half-mile or caught them later at secondary checkpoints up to 50 miles from the frontier.
In El Paso, Silvester Reyes, the patrol-sector chief, took a different tact. First, he plugged up holes in the border fence - they had previously been left open to serve as channels that made it easier to monitor illegal traffic.
Second, Mr. Reyes deployed his officers tightly along the border, where their physical presence preempted illegal entries. The tactic allowed Reyes to bring more manpower to the border itself, rather than deploying them as a secondary line of defense.
Now, the INS must decide whether to use the El Paso strategy in other hot spots, especially the No. 1 entry point for illegal migration - southern California.