WASHINGTON — REPUBLICANS in Congress are turning up the heat on an emotional issue - illegal immigration - where Clinton Democrats may be increasingly vulnerable in the 1994 midterm elections.
Although President Clinton once promised to make immigration problems ``a priority for this administration,'' Republicans charge that the White House and the Democratic Congress have reneged.
House Republican whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia says the Clinton policy on this issue, like many others, is: ``Talk tough, act weak, and be confused.''
Beyond the capital Beltway, Americans' anger over illegal immigration is bipartisan - and growing. Many voters from both parties say that illegals push down wages and take away jobs, particularly those of low-income Americans.
Concern is particularly acute in immigrant-heavy California, Florida, and Texas. Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California and Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida say illegals cost state and local taxpayers billions of dollars for education, welfare, and health care.
The immigration controversy is jelling only months before off-year elections in which Democrats already expect to lose 15 to 25 seats in the House and one to four seats in the Senate. Any issue that gives the GOP an extra edge seriously threatens Democratic control on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Gingrich attributes Mr. Clinton's hesitancy to special interest groups. The White House is ``under great pressure from the left,'' he says. Although many Hispanics favor tough measures, ``the political leadership of the ethnic groups in the Democratic Party is very hostile to anything which is restrictive,'' he says.
Republicans note that Gallup and other pollsters find the public is demanding a crackdown on illegal aliens.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Task Force on Illegal Immigration, points to two instances of Clinton waffling. At a hearing before a House immigration subcommittee, Mr. Smith recently asked Doris Meissner, commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), whether she supported GOP efforts to add 6,000 additional agents along the Mexican border. The current Border Patrol force is about 4,000.
Mrs. Meissner responded: ``We opposed the amendment [sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California] because we believe we have an adequate proposal on the table at the present time.''
The ``adequate proposal'' she spoke of would add 1,010 agents to the border over a two-year period.
Gingrich says: ``It is pathetic to be told that for a total of 10,000 Border Patrol [agents], you could probably have 95 percent coverage, and to realize that in a single month, we demobilize 15,000 people out of the Defense Department. So for half of one month's demobilization, you could basically seal off the border,'' but Clinton is unwilling.
Meissner insists: ``We are going about this in a step-by-step manner because that is as quickly as you can bring people on, train them, equip them properly, and so forth.''
ANOTHER point of contention involves the ramshackle fence that runs along key parts of the border. GOP lawmakers were stunned when they learned that on March 7 Meissner had agreed with officials of the Mexican government that Mexico would be given a prior say in all future construction of fences.
In a memo dated April 28, Meissner ordered that Border Patrol agents in the field ``must provide local GOM [government of Mexico] officials with an opportunity to present viable alternatives to building the desired border barriers.''
Construction of stronger border fences is a vital link in patrol efforts to halt illegal crossings. Fences reduce the smuggling of drugs and stolen cars. But they also lower illegal immigration and control violent crime, including the ``rocking'' of agents by Mexicans just across the border.
US military engineers have moved ahead steadily with fence construction in some areas. In San Diego, for example, 14 of the 15 miles of open border between the Pacific Ocean and nearby mountains have been fenced, using military surplus steel landing mats.
Where the San Diego fence is complete, crimes of all kinds have dropped sharply, though many Mexicans complain that it reminds them of an American ``Berlin Wall.''
Other fences are in various stages of discussion or construction along the 2,000 mile border from California to Texas, though Republicans claim the Meissner memo puts those projects in jeopardy.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) of California notes that 3,000 to 4,000 people illegally cross the San Diego border with Mexico ``every day of the week.'' He says the ``freeze'' on new construction hampers ``the only thing that we've been able to do there that's a real deterrent....''
Representative Gallegly complains: ``It sounds as though the commissioner is working for the State Department rather than the Justice Department....''