America's traditional image as a country open to the world's disadvantaged may be dimming. The influx of Indochinese refugees in recent years, as well as the massive Cuban migration, have sparked a heated debate on how open the US "door" should be.
Congress is expected to plunge into this debate in the coming year. A reshaping of national immigration policy may be in the works -- an effort likely to generate a reevaluation of this country's role as gatherer of the world's poor and persecuted.
Government officials, journalists, and others took up the highly charged immigration issue recently at a major conference held here. Their discussion revolved around such facts of national life as these:
* Immigration levels soared to record highs in the United States during the past decade -- topping previous highs set in the 1890s and from 1910 to 1920. Last year alone, 808,000 legal immigrants entered the US, with illegal immigrants pushing the total to an estimated 1 million. Those numbers, demographers say, account for half of the nation's yearly population growth.
* Polls show that 90 percent of Americans say they support whatever must be done to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country. And 80 percent say they want to reduce current legal quotas. When President Carter decided to double the admission of Indochinese refugees to 168,000 annually, only 19 percent of Americans polled supported his decision, and 46 percent wanted a reduction from the previous level.
* The US receives more immigrants and refugees than any other country. It accepts nearly twice as many persons as the rest of the world's nations combined.
* Unlike immigration patterns set during other periods in American history, approximately 50 percent of all recent legal and illegal immigrants have been members of a single language group --Spanish speakers. In the next century, it has been estimated, that total will average 85 percent yearly. Already, some experts warn of the potential for a bilingual, bicultural strain that could tear at a national cohesion based, in large part, on English as a common language.
* The number of illegal immigrants now in the US is conservatively estimated at between 4 million and 6 million -- with some guesses going as high as 12 million. Mexicans account for only half of that total. The remainder is made up of illegal immigrants from the Carribbean, Central and South America, Asia, and Europe.
"The press of numbers, of masses of humanity, have made migration obsolete as a solution to human problems," said Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, addressing the conference. "There are too many poor people to solve poverty merely by moving some of them . . . .
"America owes its first duty to our own disadvantaged, unemployed, and poor . . . and we can only meet these commitments by placing realistic limits on immigration. . . . That lady in the harbor," he continued, referring to the Statue of Liberty with its famous inscription welcoming the world's poor and oppressed, "symbolizes liberty, not immigration."
After years of inaction at the federal level -- and a national refugee and immigration policy often considered to be lacking in direction and adequate enforcement -- experts say some policy reshaping is likely to occur under the guidance of Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming.
In a move backed by Congressman Mazzoli, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, the House already has voted unanimously to restore $25 million and 970 positions to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) budget -- money and positions President Reagan had wanted to cut. Although the Senate has yet to act on the measure, and the money must still be appropriated, Mazzoli says he expects to get "the lion's share" of those cuts restored.
"This is not a liberal-conservative issue. It's not a Democratic-Republican issue," Mazzoli told the conference. "This is a national issue."
Beefing up INS forces will be a major part of efforts to overhaul national immigration policy, according to Mazzoli and Senator Simpson. Other facets of immigration policy to be considered in Congress include: setting an overall cap on the number of immigrants allowed in US; granting amnesty to illegal aliens now in this country; revising the so- called "Texas Proviso" passed in 1952, which exempts employers from punishment for hiring illegal aliens; and creating some sort of national identification system to ensure that employers know whether they are hiring a legal resident -- a highly controversial subject.
The need for policy review has been underscored by the unprecedented number of immigrants entering the country recently. But experts at the conference noted that other perhaps more subtle factors make the need for policy overhaul particularly urgent.
They cited, for example, the public's increasing frustration with the heavy flow of immigrants and warned that such heated feelings could eventually bring to the surface the elements of racism and xenophobia that marked 1920s immigration policies.
"The greater risk," said Simpson, "is that the American people will in the long term have what I call compassion fatigue. 'Where does it all end"' they will ask. Finally the American people may turn from their humanitarianism and try something else."
A number of participants in the conference noted the potential for serious stress as the primacy of English is challenged by the heavy influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"I think that English-Spanish bilingualism will produce a greater strain in this country than white-black relations," predicted television commentator Eric Sevareid, who moderated a panel.