Budget battles in the Congress and the White House may be threatening America's new, controversial program to grant amnesty to as many as 4 million illegal aliens. A number of experts, both in and out of government, worry that without adequate funding the amnesty program - to be launched next Tuesday - could be damaged by widespread fraud. Thousands of aliens who are ineligible could be improperly permitted to remain in the United States.
Concern has grown quickly after a series of sharp budget cuts - first by the Justice Department, then by the White House, and most recently last week by the House of Representatives.
Congress and the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) originally estimated that $422 million would be needed to launch the amnesty program this year, along with other parts of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
The $422 million got caught in the budget wringer, however. First, critics say, the White House whacked the INS request by 63 percent, and the House of Representatives deepened that to 74 percent - all the way down to $108.9 million.
This has alarmed a number of experts, and at least one hearing has been called in the House this week to assess the damage.
Carol Crawford, associate director for economics and government at the Office of Management and Budget, says the problems are not as serious as some observers claim.
Mrs. Crawford says that in addition to appropriations by the Congress, the INS will have another $125 million from fees charged to alien applicants. These fees will be used to pay for expanded INS responsibilities.
But others counter that the fees are an unreliable source of funds.
Between 3 million and 4 million illegal aliens are expected to flood the INS with applications for amnesty in coming months. Each of these applications is supposed to be carefully checked.
Yet the INS is being given only 340 new investigators in addition to the 680 already on the job.
Even with that addition, the service will have nearly 200 fewer investigators than it had in 1976, long before the current rush of illegal immigration began.
In addition to investigating amnesty fraud, the INS must also police 3 million companies to be sure they are complying with a part of the new law which forbids the hiring of illegal aliens.
Further, heavy new responsibilities are being put on the INS this year to enforce the Narcotics Traffickers Deportation Act of 1986, and the Marriage Fraud Amendments Act of 1986.
One federal official with intimate knowledge of the INS says the service would need 3,000 to 3,500 investigators - triple the numbers in the budget - to carry out its duties properly.
Close observers who have watched the INS struggle for years with growing border problems think the new responsibilities will overwhelm the service.
The amnesty program causes special concern. It will eventually lead to permanent-resident status, and then citizenship, for those who are approved. Furthermore, all of these new citizens will eventually be able to bring in millions of relatives from abroad.
Under the law, to be eligible for amnesty aliens must have been living in the US continuously since Dec. 31, 1981.
Millions of illegal aliens who entered the country after that date, and are not eligible for amnesty, are expected to find ways to beat the system.
Federal officials are particularly concerned about:
Fraudulent documents. The government requires applicants for amnesty to provide rent receipts, pay stubs, and other documents to prove they have been here since 1981. Many of these could be faked.
Counterfeiting rings. There are already professional counterfeiting rings on the Mexican border that turn out fake social security cards and other documents. One INS investigator says the documents are becoming more and more difficult to detect.
Background checks. When in doubt, government officials could probe the personal lives of aliens to determine where they have worked and lived. But this requires plentiful manpower.
``We may just have to rubber-stamp thousands of applications,'' says one ranking immigration official, who asked that his name be withheld.
The number of investigators is clearly inadequate, says Simin Yazdgerdi, a lobbyist for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
``If there are only 340 [new] investigators for both [employer] sanctions enforcement and amnesty fraud, then each investigator is responsible for investigating approximately 9,000 employers and 9,000 amnesty applications,'' she says. ``[In] one year of a standard 255 workdays, each investigator would spend an average seven minutes for each investigation. ... How can the integrity of the amnesty program be maintained?''
A number of government experts agree that the magnitude of the task confronting the INS can hardly be exaggerated. Thousands of fraudulent applications could slip through. Here on the front line of the immigration problem on the Texas-Mexico border, the difficulty of the INS task becomes very apparent.
Joseph P. Aubin, an intelligence officer with the US Border Patrol, notes that even under normal conditions the Immigration Service is swamped with paper work.
For example, last year in Mr. Aubin's El Paso sector, about 3,000 non-Mexican aliens were arrested. These arrests are of particular importance to the Border Patrol.
The aliens come from Iran, Libya, China, Malaysia, Nigeria, and dozens of other countries. Some of these non-Mexicans, an INS source says, could be spies, infiltrators, or others of particular danger to the US. Their documents could provide important information that could lead to smuggling rings, drug traffickers, and other criminals.
Yet Aubin says that even without the new duties related to amnesty, his department has been unable to keep pace.
``I don't have enough time right now to check what is already coming into this office. I'm supposed to examine passports for forgeries and photo substitutions, alterations, and I don't have time. I'm rubber-stamping them out of this office.''
Aubin was asked: ``How much time does someone in this office have to study documents from these aliens to see if they are illegal?''
``None,'' he replied.
``Not even five minutes?''
Also unhappy with the current status of the amnesty program are a number of church groups, Hispanic lobbyists, and others who favor large-scale immigration. They worry that the budget crunch and the rapid pace at which the INS has been forced to get ready for the amnesty program will harm the processing of normal immigration applications.
Some of these groups asked for a one-year delay in the start of the program to give the INS more time to organize. But that plea was rejected.
Meanwhile, the INS is plunging ahead, even without supplemental funds, by borrowing from its third- and fourth-quarter budgets.