Are aliens who work illegally inside US borders a net plus or minus for the United States?
The question lies at the heart of the national political debate over the issue of US immigration policy.
The debate is taking place against the background of an 8.5 percent January unemployment rate in the US, meaning more than 9 million American citizens are out of work.
Involved in the debate are President Reagan, who has proposed legislation, including a plan to let some foreign workers enter legally; Congress, which is considering legislation, and millions of Americans, whose concern about the issue has been registered in national polls.
Also directly involved are the illegal (sometimes referred to as ''undocumented'') workers from various nations, primarily Mexico. Do such workers take jobs away from Americans and legal residents? Are undocumented workers a drain on government services, or do they pay more taxes than the cost of the benefits they receive?
The flow of illegal immigrants to the US actually has been tolerated for years by lack of an effective border-control policy. Many times in the past century the US has welcomed -- even recruited -- Mexican workers. The welcome usually has ended during tough economic times.
Today, with high unemployment, it is one of those tough times. So the President and members of Congress are calling for action to regain ''control'' of US borders.
But what kind of action is in the best interests of the nation? Even experts calling for closed borders generally say illegal aliens are only one part of the nation's unemployment problem. Other experts insist undocumented workers actually help provide more jobs for American citizens. They argue that some industries are kept afloat only by the use of illegals, who do work that Americans won't do. Were these industries to close, they say, Americans would lose jobs, too.
Sharp disagreement over the direction of US policy threatens to thwart efforts to take action in this election year. The challenge for US policymakers is to seek out scare ''facts'' and make informed decisions. A wide range of solutions have been offered. Among them: a tightly guarded, closed border, a wide-open border, a stepped-up worker plan, ''amnesty'' for illegals within US borders, and a national identification card system.
That reform is needed is clear. Border enforcement policies today are so ineffective that large numbers of workers enter the US illegally each year. Many do so here in El Paso, coming and going on a regular, round-trip basis.
Yet it is not illegal in the US to hire an illegal alien. Many employers are glad to hire them because they usually work hard -- often for very low pay. President Reagan wants a law that would allow the levying of fines against employers who ''knowingly'' hire more than four persons who cannot show proof they have entered the country legally.
Doris M. Meissner, until recently the acting commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), voices another concern: ''The existence of a large illegal migrant population within our border violates the basic concept that we are a nation under law, and this cannot be tolerated.''
''Until the US debate is based on facts -- not only on the numbers (of illegal workers) but on their impact on communities, the debate will be solved strictly in terms of politics,'' adds Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, coordinator of the US-Mexican relations program at the Center for Economic and Social Studies of the Third World in Mexico City.
There is no consensus in the US on what the ''facts'' are or what to do about them. What follows is a summary of leading views, based on interviews with dozens of US and Mexican experts: Jobs
''I don't know of any job that would not be filled by Americans if not filled by illegals,'' contends Rudolph Oswald, research director for the AFL-CIO.
Most analysts say that if undocumented workers were expelled from the US -- a step the Reagan administration is not proposing -- businesses using illegal labor would either fold, move to Mexico or another nation with cheaper labor, or be forced to raise wages.
The last option, says Mr. Oswald, would make the jobs attractive to American citizens. ''I see no reason why wealthy people should wash their shirts in a laundry where wages are held down by illegals,'' he says.
(For example: One illegal alien, a Mexican arrested here in El Paso recently by the US Border Patrol, was found to be earning just $2 an hour from a US employer. The minimum wage in the United States is $3.35 an hour.
(Yet at a higher point on the pay scale are a smaller number of undocumented workers, such as Felipe, interviewed by this newspaper in the small central Mexican town of Coalcoman. He says he earns about $2.50 an hour in Mexico doing construction work; when he crosses the border illegally into the US, he earns about $11 an hour doing the same kind of labor.)
Marion F. Houston, a Department of Labor immigration specialist, agrees. She says that without illegal labor wages would ''creep up'' in surviving businesses and industries. This would make the jobs more attractive to minorities, especially teen-age blacks who may see these jobs as ''dead end'' with no opportunities to advance, and so often pass them up. But, she adds, it may take years before these wages rise to that point.
Most so-called ''low status'' jobs are already held by Americans, points out George W. Grayson, professor of Latin American politics at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. With high unemployment, such jobs become even more attractive to Americans, he says.
But most experts, including the Labor Department's Dr. Houston, recognize that many industries are now dependent on the cheap labor of undocumented workers.
''There are very definitely industries which rely on them and would be seriously impaired without them,'' Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration said in a recent interview while visiting Mexico City. President Reagan has recognized this US dependency, at least to a degree, in his proposal to allow 100,000 Mexican ''guest workers'' to enter the US legally over a two-year period.
Exactly how many undocumented workers hold jobs at the expense of US citizens?
Not many, says Wayne Cornelius, director of the program in US-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego, who has studied the question for a decade.
''There is no hard, reliable evidence that there is a significant amount of direct displacement of American workers'' by undocumented workers, says Dr. Cornelius. But, he adds, he does not know how many US citizens might be discouraged from seeking jobs because illegals are already filling them.
He and Dr. Grayson of William & Mary both cite a public opinion poll taken by the Los Angeles Times in 1981 showing that three out of four jobless citizens said they would apply for jobs paying between the minimum wage of $3.35 and $4. 50.
But a study of jobs suddenly opened by the arrest of a number of undocumented workers in San Diego found that the vacancies were mostly filled not by Americans but by Mexicans with legal entry documents. (Not clear from the study is how much effort was made to recruit Americans.)
This study and other factors led professors Sidney Weintraub and Stanley R. Ross of the University of Texas at Austin to conclude in an article: ''On balance, then, the weight of evidence militates against equating jobs held by illegals with jobs lost by US nationals.''
The US actually may find itself looking for more workers from other countries in the years ahead, says Clark Reynolds, economics professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
If the US economy grows at only 1 to 2 percent a year between now and the year 2000, he calculates, there will be a need for ''at least 5 million'' workers above and beyond the numbers US citizens and legal immigrants will provide.Although he agrees that undocumented workers do displace some US nationals, he says that they also save some jobs by keeping industries that depend on cheap labor alive. They create some new jobs for Americans by reason of their economic activity, he says. Social costs
When Mexicans come to the US, they often pay social security and other taxes, even though they are working illegally. Some use public health facilities and send their children to public schools.In its report on legal and illegal immigration, the House Select Committee on Population said in 1978: ''Despite popular belief, illegal immigrants do not appear to be a heavy burden on government social service programs. Undocumented aliens appear to be more likely to pay taxes than to use tax-supported programs.''
The report went on to say that studies of illegal immigrants estimate that less than 5 percent used food stamps, welfare, or supplemental security income. (Illegals are not eligible for these programs.) The number of illegals claiming unemployment insurance ranged from 2 to 17 percent of those studied.
Examining government records on some 580 illegal migrants in 1981, David North of the new Transcentury Foundation in Washington came to similar conclusions. He found that: (1) migrants and their employers paid more than $1 million into the Social Security Trust Fund and drew no benefits as of the date of the study; (2) they paid a small amount of income taxes and received a smaller amount of earned income tax credits; (3) one-third collected some unemployment insurance at a time of low unemployment -- although the state (California) collected more unemployment insurance payments from their employers than it paid out in benefits.
But he also concluded that a program in Los Angeles County designed to screen out illegal migrants from welfare saved the county annually ''tens of millions of dollars in benefits.''
Although illegals appear in general to contribute more to federal and state programs than they get in return in benefits, they may be using local services in excess of any related payments for those services. Some officials in schools and hospitals in the Southwest, particularly, have complained that illegal aliens put an unfair burden on their services.
And there is another aspect to the social costs: The hidden issue of exploitation of and danger to undocumented workers. While some Mexican and US experts say the incidents of exploitation are not frequent, they can be severe.
Roger Conner of the Federation for American Immigration Reform calls illegal immigration ''as vicious and pernicious an institution as we've had in this country since slavery.'' He would like all illegal - and legal - immigration stopped.
One example of exploitation of undocumented workers, says Professor Ross of the University of Texas, are the ''outrageous'' rents some illegals are forced to pay, often for rooms in bad condition. And there have been reports of some undocumented workers living in virtual ''slavery'' in various parts of the country -- afraid to break away from intimidating employers who pay them very little.
And there's also alleged harassment from government officials. One Mexican told this reporter that when he is in the US working illegally he hesitates to go to movies, sports events, or other gatherings involving Hispanics because he is afraid of being picked up by immigration officers.
Sometimes violence occurs. One Mexican said his brother, Jose Luis Madrigal, had been killed without cause in June 1972 by an Immigration and Natural Service officer in Idaho. An INS spokesman said a Border Patrol agent shot and killed the man after he knocked the agent down and attacked him with a club. An inquest determined the shooting was in ''self-defense,'' the spokesman said. Proposed solutions
President Reagan has proposed a guest worker program, allowing foreign nationals a two-year stay in the US. In addition, he would grant amnesty to those living in the US illegally prior to Jan. 1, 1980. These people would not be eligible for welfare, food stamps, unemployment compensation and some other government programs. Enforcement of the new policy would come from fines on employers found to have hired four or more undocumented workers (up to $1,000 per alien), if the workers were knowingly hired.
Laws already exist in some 12 states against hiring undocumented workers. But experts say the laws are not being enforced.
Under the proposed federal law, how would an employer know if an alien was legally in the US? Mr. Reagan would require any two of the following to be shown to the employer: a driver's license, social security card, birth certificate, or selective service registration.
But critics of this idea say these documents could easily be forged. Senator Simpson has proposed that all Americans carry a counterfeit-proof identification card. Although this raises questions of invasion of privacy, many critics raise an even more immediate query: The documents used to obtain the counterfeit-proof identification card could be forged.
An example: One Border Patrol officer here was surprised to find that a copy of his birth certificate was requested by -- and sent to -- people in three locations in Texas without his knowledge. With the birth certificate, a Border Patrol intelligence agent here says, it would be easy for whoever requested the certificate to obtain a driver's license or even a US passport in the officer's name.
Several analysts call the 50,000 per year limit on the two-year proposed ''guest worker'' program ''a joke'' because it is so small compared to the numbers coming in illegally now from Mexico.
But Border Patrol officials here say they would welcome fines on employers as a way to get at least some of them to cooperate. Many employers now hide their illegal employees during Border Patrol raids or claim they did not know the employees were undocumented.
Other solutions being discussed:
* Closing the borders, something most analysts say is impossible, short of a massive, 24-hour military presence.
* A larger ''guest worker'' program - perhaps 500,000 or so.
* An open border. One State Department official says this is his favorite option but one politically not acceptable in the US. One professor suggests an open border would drain the poverty of Latin America into the US.
* Allow US and Mexican labor unions to meet and decide how many Mexican workers are needed in the US. This idea, offered by Mexican sociologist Jorge Bustamante, seems outrageous at first, he admits. But he says its merit is that it wins the cooperation of the unions instead of their opposition.
* An ''overlapping border.'' This, says Ellwyn R. Stoddard, sociologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, would allow free movement of people within a zone along the border. Border cities on both sides are poor and already depend on each other; why not legalize what is already happening to a large degree, he asks?
* Encourage Mexico to put more of its oil wealth into labor-intensive industries to provide more jobs, reducing the need to migrate to the US for work.
Senator Simpson sees the guest-worker program as a transition down to fewer and fewer Mexicans coming across legally. President Reagan apparently sees it as the beginning of a much larger program, bringing to mind the Bracero program that ended in the mid-1960s.
This kind of disagreement and the complexities of immigration issues -- issues the US Congress has studied at length -- may result in no action at all in this election year.
''We may well be condemned to the status quo,'' says Dr. Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego.
But the improbability of immediate action could provide the US and Mexico an opportunity to begin discussing the issue in detail -- something they are not doing, say analysts. Mexican leaders apparently see this as a poor time to negotiate the issue, given the high unemployment north of the border. But Mexican cooperation is needed to maximize the effectiveness of any US immigration policy.