Now, nearly a year after the attorney general's comment, Congress is wrapping up an immigration reform bill designed to stem the flood of aliens into the United States -- a country that has taken pride in its willingness to welcome the world's poor and downtrodden.
As the economy worsens, unemployment rates climb, and government budget cuts trim welfare payments, huge numbers of illegal aliens may be straining the US economic system more than it can bear, argue some. The Census Bureau estimates that from 3.5 to 6 million illegal aliens now reside in the country.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill, sponsored by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, is still being shaped in both House and Senate. Senator Simpson readily admits ''it'll be a long, tough road'' toward passage of the complex bill in the next month or so. In its final form, the measure is likely to embrace the following approaches to plugging leaky US borders:
* Penalties for American employers who hire illegal aliens.
* Definite limits on the number of legal immigrants.
* The beginnings of a more secure identification system that may lead to a national worker's ID card.
* Legalization of illegal aliens who arrived in the US before Jan. 1, 1982.
''A sovereign nation ought to have control over its borders,'' says Senator Simpson. ''With this bill we're sending a signal throughout the world saying that to work here, you have to be legal.''
Proposed new restrictions are making the already emotion-charged subject of immigration flare further. Some business owners bristle at the idea of a law against hiring illegal aliens; civil rights groups warn of the potential dangers of a national ID card; some Hispanic groups claim discrimination.
The Washington-based National Center for Immigrant's Rights is one group that opposes the bill. Research director Amit Pandya agrees that a country should control its borders.
''But once we decide that, the critical issue is what values and procedures we use to decide who enters,'' he says. ''That's where we have problems (with the Simpson-Mazzoli bill). It uses the pretext of controlling immigration to cut back on essential values such as family reunification and at the same time opens the back door for temporary workers.''
Special-interest groups are pushing hard to change the bill. Among the most powerful of these is the US Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is particularly unhappy with the worker identification card and employer sanctions proposals. At present, it isn't illegal to hire an undocumented worker. The bill calls for penalties of $1,000 for a first offense, and would ask for stronger criminal sanctions if an employer establishes a pattern of hiring illegal aliens. But an amendment is now pending that would exempt businesses with fewer than four employees.
''The overwhelming majority of employers don't knowingly hire illegal aliens, '' says chamber labor law attorney Chris Louis, ''but this bill applies to everybody.'' The bill calls for a $500 fine for employers who fail to go through the verification procedures before hiring an employee. Besides objecting to the paperwork and the possible penalty included in the proposed regulation, the chamber objects to the cost of the ID card program. One plan is to use social security cards as a basis for the new indentification system. Quoting US estimates, Mr. Louis says that reissuing social security cards to the entire work force would cost $860 million. If the cards were laminated with a photo, it would cost $2 billion to reissue the cards, which would have to be shown when a person changes jobs.
''Immigration is an enforcement problem, and the answer is to start with better border enforcement,'' says Mr. Louis, summing up the organization's alternative to the stricter new rules.
Some Hispanic groups agree. Sanctions against employers run a strong risk of causing discrimination, claims Arnoldo Torres, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Just look, he said, at the recent INS raids called Operation Jobs.
''They went after people who looked brown,'' says Mr. Torres. Of the more than 10,000 people arrested, less than 5,000 were here illegally, and over 80 percent of the people they apprehended were Hispanic or from the Caribbean. ''That, to us, is tremendous violation of civil rights.''
Senator Simpson says that's exactly why his bill calls for a universal worker ID card, because ''that's the only way to avoid discrimination.''
''Immigration -- legal, illegal, and refugee admissions -- has been increasing rapidly over past decade, and there's a perception that it's out of US control,'' says Michael Teitelbaum, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
''And all the evidence is that pressures for immigration are likely to increase instead of go away,'' he adds, explaining that the labor force continues to boom in countries that send immigrants to the US, and that jobs there are hard to find.
Since immigration has been growing as the birth rate has been declining, estimates are that immigration now accounts for some 40 percent of US population growth.
In 1980, legal immigration was estimated at about 800,000, while illegal entrance for that year was said to be from 600,000 to 1.5 million. The bill calls for a cap of 425,000 immigrants each year.
Mr. Boardman and others observe that even under this cap the US will still be taking in more immigrants than the rest of the world combined.