'We never have enforced our immigration laws'

Sometimes I wonder whether the United States has the will to protect its borders. It is believed that anywhere from half a million to a million illegal immigrants enter the US every year. Is anything being done about it? Not much. There are about eight and a half million unemployed Americans in the country at present but the conditions outside the US are worse than those inside, so more workers pour in. A few reporters watch the situation and shake their head over it but it is not an emotional issue. It is like the time when the US had prohibition and the law wasn't being enforced. But in that day violations of the law were flaunted and flagrant, and people got rich over rum-running. The scandal got so bad that finally the prohibition amendment was repealed.

Today is different. The law is not being enforced; it is being violated but it is not so flamboyant; instead of increasing the number on the border patrol, the funds for the patrol are reduced. Some communities of the US are not really English-speaking any longer, a new environment is growing up; maybe the new community is as good or better than the old; the point is that the change is being made unwittingly, illegally, and in a fit of absent-mindedness. Lawmakers say the problem is too big for them. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan have all talked reform but the situation remains much the same; the US has lost control of its borders.

Here is testimony taken from page 117 of a study put together this year by the Brookings Institution: ''A National Issues Seminar'' dealing with immigration and refugee policy in the 1980s. A witness is talking, Cynthia Minor , who says she has worked for five years with the US Immigration Service at Miami. She is a Haitian Creole interpreter at the Krome Refugee Camp outside Miami. Morale, she says, is very low.

''We have, as was mentioned earlier, to enforce laws and watch them be completely sidelined and overturned by judges, attorneys, or any number of different people. We have been forced into actions which are actually against our immigration laws. We have been forced to sit by and do absolutely nothing.''

She tells starkly what her friends have come up against: ''I cannot tell you of the hours and hours which we have wasted in the last four or five years on processing people who do not read or write. I am speaking now of the Haitians. Obviously, there were many legitimate claims for political asylum but most of them, believe me, are not. These are people who are convinced by what we call the 'people smugglers' to come to the United States, where they are told they are bound to have a very well-paying job and a car, and that they do not need their little piece of property which they have in Haiti. In exchange for that they are given the trip to the United States. Then we have them!...''

There are 274 pages of this kind of testimony in this one volume alone. It makes discouraging reading as you recall that testimony like this has been forthcoming for years. Some of the misguided Haitians, or Mexicans, or other nationalities are caught and, if so, sent back. They are not punished; they can try again. A great many get in.

Here is another witness, a little further on, Donna Alvarado, counsel to the subcommittee on immigration and refugee policy of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She told how Congress has floundered about -- the Ford project, then the Carter proposals (1977). Now the latest from President Reagan. With a shrug she remarked, ''When we talk about illegal immigration, it sounds like such a new phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. The fact is that we never have enforced our immigration laws. We have an ambivalent attitude, a half open door.'' From her experience illegal immigration is increasing; whereas illegals did not previously enter states like Mississippi and Oklahoma, she noted, ''smugglers are now taking them into these areas and very effectively.''

And so on. President Ford had a Domestic Council Committee on Illegal Aliens. President Carter sent Congress impressive plans in 1977. Congress itself set up a select commission in 1978. Now it's Mr. Reagan's term. He has offered ambitious plans. It is doubtful if Congress will get to them. Often a new commission is set up and the question is studied all over again. The problem doesn't go away. Back in April 1978 John J. Gilligan, AID administrator, told an audience in Boston :

''Fifteen to 20 percent of the adult population of Mexico has crossed the border illegally and is at work in the United States.''

That was a period of unemployment and probably exaggerated. But the aliens are still coming.

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