As illegal immigration reaches record levels along the Mexican border, Congress has begun to bring President Reagan into the urgent search for solutions. The Senate has already passed the Simpson bill, a reform measure that would make it illegal to hire millions of undocumented workers now in the United States. But the House has moved slowly and reluctantly.
This is where the President comes in. Late yesterday, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming was to escort Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey to the White House for reassurance by the President.
Mr. Rodino favors reform but sees no need to put his Judiciary Committee and the full House through a bruising debate on reform, unless Mr. Reagan lends his complete support.
Sources on Capitol Hill say Rodino feels this could be the last chance for reform in this decade.
Federal officials say the need for reform is growing swiftly. The number of illegals from Mexico surged by 50 percent in the past three months. They estimate that 1.8 million people will be arrested on the border this year. The collapse of oil prices (Mexico is a major oil producer) and last year's earthquake in Mexico City both hurt the job market south of the border.
Meanwhile, resistance to any kind of reform continues strong among some Hispanic leaders, such as Mayor Henry G. Cisneros (D) of San Antonio.
Mayor Cisneros concedes that there are ``more illegals than ever before'' in his city. He also says tensions are growing between incoming Mexicans and native American Hispanics.
But he insists that the Simpson bill is not the answer. It would make it illegal for any American company to hire an undocumented alien, but it would also grant amnesty to many ``illegals'' already here.
Cisneros told a group of reporters at breakfast here on Tuesday that it is dangerous to outlaw the hiring of illegals, because it could increase discrimination against native-born American Hispanics. Instead, he favors long-term solutions in conjunction with Mexico.
``Our fundamental problem,'' Cisneros says, ``is that we have one of the wealthiest nations in the world with a 2,000-mile border with a country that is very poor, and one could say at the moment, an economy that is deteriorating. . . .
``We don't have enough money in the federal Treasury to put enough agents, arm-in-arm, on the border, which is what it would take to stop people from coming across the border.''
Cisneros's specific steps:
1. Urge US companies to invest in Mexico, rather than in nations like Singapore or South Korea. This will create more jobs there.
2. Urge Mexico to change its 51-to-49 percent ownership rules that don't allow American investors to control their own firms in Mexico.
3. Set up tax-credit initiatives to steer American investments toward Mexico.
4. Work with US labor unions and agricultural interests to lower the objections to Mexican products coming across the border.
``You're either going to get their products, or you're going to get their people. But you cannot seal the border and expect neither products nor people, because there's seething unemployment and poverty that cannot be addressed in any other way,'' he says.
Another idea that has been discussed is creating a development zone along the Mexican-US border. Such a plan, however, could create an even greater stampede toward the border area -- something both nations would like to avoid.
Reformers note that it could take decades to uplift Mexico's economy. They ask: Is the US border to remain wide open until Mexico's problems are solved?