Ramon -- one of many illegal aliens straining US policy

Ramon Arias, a slight, young Mexican man, stood in the cavernous lobby of Dulles International Airport. He had no suitcase and was wearing only slacks and a short-sleeve knit shirt against the night chill. In his hand was a scrap of an airmail envelope on which was written an Arlington, Va., address.

"Mi hermano . . .," he explained, unabale to speak English. Gradually it became clear that Ramon's next meal, his night's sleep, and his future were riding on that scrap of paper.

I had noticed him on board the flight from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Now he was half a continent away, and soon -- if the tenuous thread that linked him to his brother held -- he would be looking for work in the Washington, D.C., area.

Other than the mild apprehension he must have felt waiting to connect with his brother, his journey looked effortless. He had a pocketful of cash and no papers. He smiled slily when asked his city of origin. He had stayed with relatives in Dallas until flying north, he said. He would work anywhere, had no particular skills, but was sure he would find a job. His brother had done the same thing before him, so he was optimistic.

Like the Cubans huddled at the Peruvian compound in Havana and the Haitians landing on Florida's beaches, Ramon Arias was clinging to a whisper of hope for a new life in North America. He may represent, in an individual way, what one academic expert calls the most significant problem, after energy, facing the United States in the coming decade: immigration.

"We seem to be dealing with immigration -- illegal or legal -- on an ad hocm basis," says Donald Herzberg, a Georgetown University dean who served on a national immigration review committee in the 1960s. Dr. Herzberg points to the continuing influx of Latin Americans as well as the succession of politically induced immigrations: Eastern Europeans after World War II, Cubans after Castro, the "boat people" from Vietnam.

"We have no memory of these past immigration crises," he says. "We tend to respond each time on a humanitarian basis."

Dr. Herzberg says he believes what is needed is a national immigration policy , a before-the-fact way of dealing with legal and illegal immigrants as well as refugees like the Cuban and Haitian groups.

The year-old Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy is attempting to measure the economic, social, and cultural aspects of immigration. By March of next year it must recommend new laws to deal with immigrants.

To date, the commission's major accomplishment has been sponsorship of a preliminary study of illegal aliens which estimates their number at below 6 million, and may be only 3.5 million to 5 million. Previous estimates ranged upward to 12 million. Mexicans make up no more than 3 million at any one time, and probably many fewer, the study says.

Among other observations made by the commission in a recent progress report:

* The rate of population growth in the US is much more affected by slight changes in fertility rates than by substantial changes in the rate of immigration.

* Most immigrants and refugees who have come to this country and have acquired the status of citizen or resident alien have adapted to and participated in American life fairly rapidly.

* The racism and xenophobia that once characterized strong opposition to immigration in the US have not surfaced significantly in the media or in the commission's public hearings.

* Economic and dollar-flow considerations are varied, and there is a growing debate over the relationship of immigration to resource conservation.

* There is "growing support" for non-counterfeitable work-authorization cards that only properly documented aliens and citizens could possess.

Overall, the report says, there has been a nearly universal belief that the present immigration criteria are arbitrary, capricious, and much too long.

Is immigration second only to energy as a national priority?

Nina Solarz of the select commission staff says, based on public meetings and correspondence, "the presence of large numbers of illegals is a grave concern to most people."

But, she adds, "people don't link refugees, legal immigrants, and resident aliens with the illegal alien problem." They tend to be for humanitarian gestures toward refugees and other immigrants, but against illegal entry into the country.

Barnaby Zall of the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), the group that is pushing for exclusion of illegal aliens from the 1980 census report, agrees that an immigration policy is of prime importance. FAIR supports fixed numbers of immigrants distributed equally among all countries.

Priority should be given to political refugees, such as the Cubans, Mr. Zall says. But FAIR objects to "economic refugees," such as the Haitians, saying they are circumventing US immigration laws.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts would alleviate the backlog of legal-entry requests from Mexicans. Senators have eliminated a controversial section of the bill which would have effectively tripled the number of visas for Mexicans. That was considered a matter best left to the select commission. The bill should clear the committee stage this spring.

Meanwhile, Ramon Arias is looking for work.

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