Illegal immigration into the United States "is perhaps 1.5 million to 2 million annually," Attorney General William French Smith told President Reagan and his Cabinet recently.
Mr. Smith, acting in his capacity as head of a special Cabinet task force, offered a choice of options to President Reagan on dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants. Although Mr. Reagan has postponed an immediate policy decision, indications are that the administration is moving toward positive action on the issue.
In a speech in Florida last month, Mr. Smith declared, "Quite simply put, we have lost control or our own borders." Others have described the situation as a breakdown of law enforcement.
President Carter's 16-member Select Commission on Immigration under the Rev. Theodore M. hesburgh submitted a 450-page report last February. It recommended tighter controls, employer sanctions, and worker identity cards.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, a member of the Hesburgh commission, starts hearing shortly before an immigration subcommittee.
Mr. Smith's estimate of the number of illegal entries is one of the highest yet heard. His briefing paper for the Cabinet meeting, obtained by the Monitor, indicates that he differentiates between a "gross" and "net" flow of illegal immigrants. So loose is border control that some illegals cross over and return to Mexico or other points of origin. So-called "net" inflow (illegals who cross the border and remain) is between 250,000 to 500,000, Mr. Smith told the Cabinet.
He estimated illegal residents in the US at between 3 million and 6 million, about half from Mexico. The Border Patrol apprehended 1,069,400 illegal aliens during fiscal year 1979, he reported, 92 percent at or near the Mexican border. These aliens are sent back into mexico without penalty, many to return again on another attempt. Mr. Smith told the Cabinet conference this was "a dramatic increase from the 50,000 apprehensions in 1964." He sees no signs of letup in the flow:
"Pressures to immigrate to the US continue to increase at a time of inflation , unemployment, and necessary cuts in social programs," his memorandum declared.
Mr. Smith said that polls show 91 percent of Americans favor an "all-out effort" to stop illegal immigration. Even without illegals, the legal immigration to the US "is the highest of any country in the world."
"Immigration is pushed by poverty and unemployment in the sending countries, particularly Mexico."
"The Mexican case is exemplary, its population may double in the next two decades; one-sixth of the population is unemployed or underemployed; US jobs pay seven times as much as in Mexico," the report added.
The nine Cabinet-member council, generally followed recommendations by the earlier Hesburgh commission, but supported an experimental "guest worker" program and a temporary boost in quotas to relieve backlogs. The earlier commission also called the situation "out of control."