Another Congress, another try at immigration reform

Congress returns to a crisis of illegal alien immigration that grows worse daily and raises the question of whether the United States has lost control of its borders.

Mexico has devalued the peso three times since August, inflation there exceeded 100 percent in 1982, and pressure from unemployed workers to enter the US by any expedient has grown. Will Congress again postpone the action it has discussed for the last four years?

The economic crunch in Mexico is accentuating the illegal immigration problem , some analysts say. Successive devaluations eroded 83 percent of the peso's worth last year. There has been a loss of 800,000 industrial jobs. Mexico's birthrate has averaged around 2.5 percent compared to about 0.8 percent in the US. The flow of illegals across the northern border has eased the tension in Mexico. But some observers argue that the flow also has increased unemployment in the US; some estimates place the number of illegals at 8 million or 10 million.

Congress failed to act on a reform bill that was supposed to control the situation. It was put together by a Reagan-appointed task force under the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and appeared as the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. It proposed tougher enforcement of existing immigration restrictions, sanctions against employers who knowingly hired illegals, and an amnesty program to allow undocumented workers already in the country to become US citizens.

US Attorney General William French Smith called the measure ''rational and comprehensive,'' and in August the Senate approved it, 80 to 19. But it was dropped in the lame-duck session.

Opposition has come from a powerful new lobby group of Hispanic-Americans. They argue, among other things, that sanctions against employers could lead to discrimination against Hispanics. Employers, they say, would wind up asking for proof of citizenship from anyone of Hispanic origin - regardless of whether they are a US citizen, a resident alien, or an illegal alien.

Growers in the Southwest oppose sanctions and say they need the cheap labor illegals provide - few US citizens are willing to do the job, they argue. The US has been traditionally casual about immigration. Now it finds substantial new ethnic interest groups composed of Mexicans, Cubans, Haitians, and other Latin Americans. This may surpass the political influence of the black bloc in a few years. Hispanics are led by The League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and others. Some militant minorities branded efforts at immigration reform as racist. The US trade union movement is divided, some arguing that the foreign-worker control sections will weaken domestic unions.

Observers say they expect reform legislation to be reintroduced in the new Congress.

''By offering no reasonable alternative to employers sanctions,'' the Washington Post editorialized after congressmen failed to act, '' . . . they leave themselves open to the charge that they affirmatively favor unlimited, uncontrolled, and illegal immigration. There is little support for this position in Congress or the country.''

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