WASHINGTON — DESPITE pleas from fellow Democrats who face tough elections, the Clinton White House refuses to support bold new legislative moves this year on immigration.
The latest Democrat to call for action - Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California - wants a $1-per-person crossing fee to pay for 2,100 new guards along the Mexican-United States border, as well as other initiatives.
Attorney General Janet Reno, while not rejecting Senator Feinstein's proposal outright, quickly raised doubts about the legality and the effectiveness of the border fee.
Democrats in Congress worry that if the Clinton White House drags its feet, they could be hurt this fall, particularly in elections in Sun Belt states with booming populations of illegal immigrants.
Senator Feinstein's circumstances illustrate why. Once considered a shoo-in for reelection, a June 2 poll showed Feinstein in a surprising neck-and-neck contest with her Republican challenger, Rep. Michael Huffington. California Republicans, led by Gov. Pete Wilson, are making the federal government's failure to protect the borders against illegal entry a top political issue.
Feinstein recently told Attorney General Reno: ``I'm really very serious about the need to take action now.... [T]he worst thing we can do is do nothing.''
Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois warns that if the White House doesn't help craft ``good, solid answers'' to immigration problems, then ``emotion'' will take over in Congress.
Administration officials have a dual response to this growing Capitol Hill chorus.
First, Ms. Reno is asking Congress for time to review a long-awaited study by the US Commission on Immigration Reform. Reno says until the report is issued, any action by Congress would be premature. The report won't be ready until September, however - too late to pass new legislation this year or to help nervous Democrats in the November election.
Second, Reno and her deputy, Doris Meissner, are putting new regulations into place. With those and new funds to hire several hundred additional border patrol agents, they insist that sweeping new legislation probably is unnecessary.
Despite their assurances to Congress, Clinton officials are clearly resisting new legislation for other reasons as well.
Reno and Mrs. Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), know that growing antagonism toward immigrants could bring a harsh crackdown by Congress on all immigration, both legal and illegal.
Seeking to reassure Californians, Meissner noted last weekend that newly invigorated efforts to halt illegal immigration are beginning to work.
MORE personnel, better technology, improved fences, lighting, and other border defenses are slowing the flow of undocumented immigrants in places like San Diego and El Paso, Texas, she said.
``Our people at the border in California believe that they have, just in the last several months, gone from being about 50 percent effective to being about 65 percent effective,'' Meissner told reporters in San Francisco. If the Border Patrol has become 65 percent effective, it is now catching two out of three illegal crossers.
``With the increased personnel that is coming on in the next several months, it is their belief that [the rate] will go to about 85 percent ... by the end of the year,'' she says.
About 1.2 million persons a year are apprehended along America's Southwest border annually. An equal number get through, officials say, but many of them later return home. An estimated 300,000 of these illegal aliens remain permanently in the US each year. Half settle in California.
Feinstein's answer to all this is the Illegal Immigration Control and Enforcement Act of 1994. The bill has two purposes: Get tough at the border, and reduce government benefits that attract illegal immigrants.
The senator also proposes a two-year pilot project for ``interior repatriation.'' Today, most illegal immigrants are simply returned to the border when apprehended. Within hours, many reenter the US. Feinstein would repatriate aliens to the interior of their home countries hundreds of miles from the border.
``Estimates now range that there are between 1.6 million and 2.3 million illegal immigrants in California,'' Feinstein says. ``The governor of California believes the costs to our state of illegal immigrants has reached $3 billion a year. This is an expense that Californians can no longer afford to bear.''