Illegal immigration: 'We've lost control'

We shall know soon whether Congress plans to do something about the immigration problem. America has all but lost control of its borders. The most comprehensive changes in immigration policy since 1952 now wait action in some pending bills. Will Congress act?

First we must go back a bit. This is a global problem. There has hardly been a time of greater population strain in history. For example, China, with about a billion people (out of a world population of 4.7 billion) is fighting to slow its increase. It is even reported to countenance infanticide in some areas. Population increase for the world as a whole appears to be slowing down somewhat but is not expected to stabilize before it reaches 10.2 billion or so by the close of the next century.

The other big factor in the global population drama is health. Some nations - the industrialized ''smokestack'' nations - are relatively well off. A fact to note is that as a nation raises its income it reduces its birth rate. Often it happens that the more poverty there is in a region the more children there are! This shows up in statistics compiled by solemn demographers. Example: Average life expectancy in industrialized nations is now around 72 years but for the world as a whole is only around 57.5. A compilation of these statistics has been made recently by the Worldwatch Institute here in Washington in conjunction with the UN Fund for Population Activities. Population increase is slowing down a bit , they say.

(Things are complicated right now by another factor: The world economy is going through an extraordinary shake-up. Gyrations in the price and supply of oil caused some of the developing countries to over-borrow and left them with enormous total debts of perhaps $700 billion. Can they pay? Will they default? Nobody knows. Computers calculate global debt but don't say what to do about it. We do know, however, that a default by even a small country today might be the equivalent of a ''run'' on a village bank a century ago.)

So where does this leave the United States now in conjunction with Mexico, and the legislation pending in Congress?

The rate of increase of US native population has just about stabilized. It amounts annually to around 0.7 percent. By contrast Mexico's is around 2.6 percent, three times as much. Unemployment in Mexico is about 36 percent. The pressure upon unemployed Mexicans to slip across the 2,000-mile border is desperate. Attorney General William French Smith told a congressional subcommittee the other day, ''We've lost control.'' Said one observer last month , ''If the wave continues, an unprecedented 2 million immigrants, double the average annual influx, may sneak into the country before 1983 is over.''

Next week Congress returns after its long recess. For two years the Senate has passed a sweeping new immigration control measure by Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. The sponsor in the House is Democrat Romano Mazzoli of Kentucky. The House failed to act last year and now the matter is up again. Last year the Senate approval was 80-19; on May 18 it passed it a second time, 76-18.

Verne Jervis, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, recently reported that apprehension of illegal immigrants is 34 percent greater than last year. Estimates of illegals now in the US runs from 3 million to 12 million.

The pending bill would give amnesty to most illegals who entered before 1980, allowing them to apply for resident status. The most important sanction proposed is to punish employers who knowingly hire illegals. Opposing the bill are some employers' and Hispanic groups.

Nobody can doubt that the exclusion law will be expensive. Alan Nelson, INS chief, estimates the costs of enforcement at $40 million to $50 million annually.

The social and economic effects of not enforcing and extending the law will be costly too. No federal law has been so violated since prohibition. There are 12 million Americans presently unemployed as the illegal tide comes in. Neighborhoods are being changed. For better or worse America is about to make one of its more important social policy decisions.

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