For too many years the United States has been lax in controlling illegal immigration. Day after day the illegal aliens cross the loosely guarded frontiers -- and end up imposing considerable social and economic strains on scores of communities throughout the US. Yet, as Senator Alan Simpson correctly pointed out last week, the ''first and most important duty of a sovereign nation'' is to gain control over its borders. And it is precisely for that reason that the Senate now ought to act decisively and pass the new immigration control bill that is scheduled to come before that chamber for a full vote today.
The measure -- the so-called Simpson-Mazzoli bill, named for Senator Simpson and Congressman Romano Mazzoli -- represents the first major immigration bill since enactment of the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act back in 1952. The crucial point about the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is that it is not designed to check or end legal immigration. Indeed the measure would continue immigration at about the current level. However, it would seek to put a stop to the intolerable illegal entry into the United States of millions of persons annually in recent years. Surely any legislation that brings order to control of a nation's borders and requires that the same laws of entry apply equally to all persons cannot be called nativist or racist, as some Hispanic groups now are alleging about the new proposal.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill would bring a halt to illegal immigration through three basic, sensible steps:
* It would require some form of national identification system for all persons seeking a job within the US. The government would have three years to devise such a plan. During the interim period employers could use such already established credentials as a drivers license, social security card, birth certicate, passport, etc.
* It would impose legal penalties and fines on employers knowingly hiring illegal aliens. Fines would range from $1,000 for each illegal alien on the first offense to $2,000 for each illegal alien on subsequent offenses.
* Finally, the measure would provide an elaborate amnesty program for millions of illegal aliens already living in the US. Illegals who entered the US prior to Jan. 1, 1977, would be granted permanent resident status. Persons who entered the US between Jan. l, 1977, and Jan.1, 1980, would gain temporary resident status. After three years, they could become permanent residents and eventually apply for citizenship.
Hispanic groups and some civil libertarians object to the fact that, under the measure, persons in the temporary resident status would not be able to obtain federal public assistance or welfare funds for some three years or so. What must not be forgotten, however, is that millions of aliens have entered the US in clear violation of existing laws, usually during the dark of night, by one or another furtive manner. The fact that such persons would be granted amnesty and allowed to work towards eventual citizenship reflects an attitude of tolerance that probably few other industrial nations would have at this time of high unemployment.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill is a long overdue attempt to gain control over US borders. It deserves congressional support.