Will alien reform law `starve'?

In two weeks, the United States embarks on the largest effort in its history to halt the illegal flow of millions of people across its borders. But some experts are worried. Some who have fought for tighter controls on unlawful immigration say the new program is being put in danger by the Reagan administration. These critics warn that budget officials in the White House are failing to provide the resources called for by Congress to carry out the law.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York charges that the White House ``would like to starve immigration reform.'' Mr. Schumer says the budget limits put on enforcement efforts ``would make the goal of immigration reform - to regain control of our borders - virtually impossible to achieve.''

Analysts say they are uncertain why the White House is clamping down on funds for the program. It may be attributable to concern over the budget deficit. It may reflect philosophical opposition by some White House officials to tighter border controls. Or it may be a sop to Hispanic groups that have opposed a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Supplemental funds to launch the reform effort are expected to come up for debate this week in the House of Representatives.

Critics say the reform effort is being endangered in several specific ways. Each one represents what they characterize as a serious threat to the program:

Congress in an amendment called for 1,840 new Border Patrol officers. The White House claims it is providing for 1,100 additional officers in its new budget requests. But critics say the actual number put in the field will be far below that number, and may even decline in 1987.

Confidential figures show that the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) said it needed an additional $422 million to carry out reform in 1987 and $419 million in 1988. The White House cut those figures by 63 percent for 1987 and 33 percent for 1988.

Congress, pressured by agricultural interests, included an exemption in the law that allows illegal aliens to harvest perishable crops, such as cherries and grapes. Reagan officials have drafted a rule that would drastically expand this category to allow illegal immigrants to harvest such ``perishable'' crops as Christmas trees, tobacco, and sugar beets. One immigration expert in the Senate calls the provision ``a joke.''

Administration officials, rather than funding the entire reform program out of general revenues, have decided to rely on fees charged to immigrants to pay for a major portion of the enforcement program. Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, co-author of the immigration bill, calls this a ``shaky foundation'' upon which to run the program.

Immigration officials reportedly sought 350 special investigators to check for fraud in applications for amnesty under the new program. Funds for these special investigators are not included in the budget submitted by the White House.

The new program is being launched at a critical juncture. Millions of aliens, mostly from Latin America and Asia, have entered the US unlawfully since 1980. This unprecedented rush of immigrants has begun to reshape the face of the United States: its language, its culture, its religion, its economy.

The impact has been particularly great in California, home to half the illegal aliens in the US. Unlawful entrants have also congregated in large numbers in Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

``Today there is no city or town of any size in the United States that doesn't have an illegal alien in it,'' says a US intelligence agent here along the Texas border.

The law, hammered out after five years of debate on Capitol Hill, is supposed to bring this tide of people under control. It has three central provisions:

First, it will now be unlawful for any American employer, except farmers, to hire illegal aliens. Enforcement sanctions include fines and prison terms for employers who ignore the law.

Second, it allows any illegal alien who has been in the US continuously since Dec. 31, 1981, to apply for permanent resident status and eventual citizenship. Between 2 million and 4 million people, mostly Mexicans, may qualify under this provision.

Third, it calls for sharply increased efforts to protect the border.

Public opinion polls have shown the American people overwhelmingly in favor of tough immigration reform. They want the flow of illegal aliens stopped.

Strict measures, however, were heatedly opposed by Hispanic groups, by businessmen and large agricultural interests that rely on cheap undocumented labor, and by a number of church groups, including many Roman Catholic leaders. Most of the illegal entrants are Catholics.

The new law goes into effect in stages. Illegal aliens who have been in the country since 1981 can begin applying for amnesty - the first step toward US citizenship - on May 5. Employer sanctions take effect in June.

The INS is gearing up for a rush of applications for amnesty from illegal aliens, as well as business inquiries on the employer-sanctions provisions.

Yet as this massive program gets under way, there is growing alarm among some congressmen, immigration experts, and government officials.

They warn that, unless the White House wholeheartedly backs the program, the US could have the worst of all worlds: amnesty for many illegal aliens, a poorly guarded border, and a weakly enforced law against employers.

Those three would add up to an ineffective law. And that could lead to an even larger rush of illegal immigrants.

Alan C. Nelson, the INS commissioner, remains publicly sanguine about the new program. He has fought for reform for years.

``I am encouraged and optimistic about the ability of the service to complete its mission,'' he told Congress the other day.

But some INS officials are privately disturbed by the lack of support they are getting from the White House.

They explain that the task of the INS under the new law is immense - far beyond its ordinary duties, which it already lacked resources to perform.

Beginning in May, as many as 3.9 million illegal aliens will be eligible to step forward and take the first step toward citizenship. INS is opening more than 100 special offices nationwide to take applications. The offices will be staffed by 1,900 people, including hundreds of INS veterans being called back from retirement.

INS has promised that each application will ``undergo strict screening'' for fraud. Aliens are required to provide documentation, such as rent receipts, pay stubs, and tax forms, to prove they have been in the US since 1981.

Aliens who arrived after 1981 cannot legally be hired, and many are expected to leave the country.

Meanwhile, INS is readying the employer-sanctions provisions, which will affect some 3 million businesses in the US. It will require every firm to obtain proof that each new employee has the right to work in this country. Even American citizens will have to prove their eligibility with such documents as birth certificates, passports, and social security cards.

At the same time, INS is to step up border controls, launch a new program for farm workers, and increase enforcement of laws against criminal aliens.

It is a ``staggering'' task, says Simin Yazdgerdi, an official with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a private group that monitors immigration activity in the US.

Miss Yazdgerdi told a House Appropriations subcommittee recently that the program could collapse without greater funds than the White House has requested.

One area that particularly disturbs critics is the failure of the INS to add more agents to patrol the border.

Some 3,200 agents are strung out along thousands of miles of border - a sieve that aliens can slip through easily.

Here on the Rio Grande, Mexicans, Salvadoreans, Iranians, Chinese, and aliens from dozens of other countries wade across the river in broad daylight, even in downtown Brownsville.

During a 30-minute period at noon, this reporter watched a dozen aliens scamper up the river bank and walk unimpeded into this city. Local police, who say that guarding the border is not their job, look the other way. Outnumbered border patrolmen catch as few as one out of eight who enter in this area, according to a federal official.

To counter this invasion, Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R) of California added an amendment to the reform bill that called for the quick addition of 1,840 new border agents. But that is not happening.

The Reagan budget calls for adding 1,100, at least on paper.

INS officials say that by the end of fiscal 1988, they hope to add at least 500.

But even that figure of 500 is based on an optimistic attrition rate in the Border Patrol of 5 percent. The attrition rate so far this year has been about 5 percent, but that has been unusually low. The attrition rate in 1986 was 8 percent, in 1985 it was 10 percent, and in 1984, 12 percent.

This year, the Border Patrol Academy in Glynco, Ga., will graduate only nine classes, with about 320 new agents. If the attrition rate from the Border Patrol force of 3,200 runs at 10 percent - about average in recent years - the force will remain static. If the attrition rate is 11 percent, the force would actually decline in size just as the new enforcement program was beginning, an INS official concedes.

During the next year, the academy has scheduled 14 classes. Even with an average attrition rate of 10 percent, those classes would add only 200 agents to the border.

That would be far below the levels demanded by Congress, and well below what federal officials concede is needed to do the job.

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