It's President Reagan vs. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. on immigration control. ''This country has lost control of its own borders,'' Mr. Reagan told his press conference Wednesday night. ''No country can sustain that kind of position.''
He referred to estimates from border officials that between half a million and a million ''illegals'' cross from Mexico annually, driven by unemployment and population pressure at home.
United States immigration authorities recently announced that the patrol had apprehended more than a million illegals on the southern border in a year ending Sept. 30 - a record. Illegals are sent back without penalty, and officials claim that within a few days most try to make reentry. Senate and House immigration committees have worked out a new immigration bill, but Representative O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts has successfully blocked action. He charges that Mr. Reagan was ready to veto the measure in order to win Hispanic votes.
Nonsense, said the President, in effect. He pledged full support for restriction. He had supported it, he said, ''for a long time.''
He added of the bill, ''I support it actively and worked hard for the passage twice of the Senate bill on immigration.'' He disagreed with some provisions of the House version of the bill, he said, but expected these would be dealt with in conference. ''I want to sign, as quickly as possible, immigration legislation ,'' he said emphatically.
Democrats are split on the speaker's position, which was announced suddenly and implied political trickery on the part of the President. O'Neill also acknowledged the strong opposition from Hispanic Americans.
Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D) of Kentucky, who has worked to pass the so-called Simpson-Mazzoli bill in the Senate, charged that O'Neill had done ''a great disservice'' to Congress, the Democratic party, and the nation. He said that the illegals have created a growing problem of crime, unemployment, and high welfare and education costs.
The pending bill is the joint product of Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, who have worked on it for three years. The bill sets up a system of sanctions against employers who knowingly employ illegals, and introduces a method intended to identify legal immigrants. It would also grant amnesty to immigrants who have lived in the US for a certain period.
Mr. Mazzoli angrily called the speaker's action abrupt, unnecessary, and thoroughly unfounded.
The growing number of Hispanics in the US now makes them politically formidable, and their loyalty could make a difference in some elections. Reagan has courted Hispanic groups recently.
Speaker O'Neill's action has ended immigration reform for the time being, many believe, - probably until after the 1984 election.
There are critics of the bill in civil liberties groups. Dale Frederick Swartz of the National Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Forum says: ''Mr. O'Neill was right in saying there is not a strong constituency for the approach taken in the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. Sponsors tried to do too much in one bill, so the politics became extremely complicated and no major interests were sufficiently satisfied to give it strong or unequivocal support.''