The flow of illegal aliens into the United States, primarily from Mexico, has suddenly surged to all-time record levels. Shocked US immigration officials now estimate that as many as 1.8 million illegals will be arrested during 1986 -- half a million more than last year's record pace. Thousands of Mexicans are slipping into the US every day, immigration officials say. A growing number of young Mexican workers are apparently being driven to the US by mounting economic troubles and a population explosion in their own country. Many of the Mexicans, for the first time, are bringing along their families. [Mexican view of US immigration reform: Page 3.]
Mexicans travel by train, plane, bus, automobile, and on foot to the US border, then try to slip across, usually at night. Many are brought across by smugglers.
US intelligence sources say the number of Mexicans arriving at some border crossing points has more than doubled in recent months.
Alan C. Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says one popular route for many Mexicans from the interior is to travel by train to Mexicali. From there they go by bus to Tijuana. He says that ``28 buses a day arrive in Tijuana from Mexicali, and nearly all are filled to capacity.''
Alan E. Eliason, chief Border Patrol agent in the San Diego sector, says from 1,500 to 2,000 persons arrive daily in Tijuana, just across the Mexican border from California, with the US as their destination.
Along the California border, where about 1,900 people are apprehended daily, officials estimate they are catching only about half of those trying to slip into the US. Texas officials estimate that along that state's porous border, only about 1 in 3 illegal aliens is picked up.
The Border Patrol has expanded its forces along the US-Mexican border during the past 12 months. But the entire 2,000-mile border still has only 2,629 agents, or barely one agent per mile. Immigration officials say the increase in border agents (up 33 percent in the past year) explains only a part of the sharp increase in arrests. Several factors are believed responsible.
Silvestre Reyes, chief Border Patrol agent for the Texas-New Mexico sector, says the US is now feeling the delayed aftershocks of the Mexico City earthquake several months ago. Many Mexicans lost their homes, their jobs, and their businesses in the earthquake, and now appear to be heading to the US for a fresh start.
Falling oil prices also are depressing the Mexican economy and driving down the value of the peso.
Gov. Richard Lamm (D) of Colorado, who has taken a strong interest in immigration issues, noted in an interview that when workers can move across the border and instantly increase their incomes by 1,000 percent, it is no surprise that so many try.
The Thursday announcement by the INS was the latest link in a chain of events during recent months along the southern border. Late last year, INS officials noted that the flow of entire family units from Mexico to the US appeared to be increasing. The latest figures show a 43 percent rise in the number of family groups being caught as they try to cross the border.
The rise in illegal immigration has also brought a corresponding increase in crime along the border, as well as a higher flow of narcotics.
Criminal activity has moved from the border itself, where bandits prey on immigrants, into some US cities. A recent study by the Brownsville, Texas, police department, for example, showed that 67 percent of all criminal activity in the downtown areas of the city can now be linked with illegal aliens, says agent Reyes.
INS Commissioner Nelson repeated an oft-heard plea: Congress must pass immigration reform if the tide of illegals is to be stopped. He says more agents, new fences, and new technology to track the movement of aliens all help, but they are only stopgaps.
The key is a law that makes it illegal for US businesses to hire workers who are in the country surreptitiously. Such a law has been passed by the US Senate, but is stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.