AMERICA'S illegal-immigration crisis refuses to go away. Despite a tough law passed in 1986, a number of experts say the situation remains largely out of control. Illegal entries are again rising. Federal border agents made 76,556 arrests in June, up 19 percent from a year ago.
Economic pressures are pushing new waves of Mexicans and other Latin Americans toward the United States. Recent illegal entrants are coming for the first time in substantial numbers from areas deep inside Mexico, like Guerrero and Oaxaca.
Bogus ID cards, some expertly made, are showing up all over the US as illegal immigrants use fake documents to gain jobs.
Meanwhile, President Bush still doesn't have a new director at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Congress is embroiled in debate over another controversial immigration bill. And critics are demanding tougher measures, like national ID cards, to get rid of workers here illegally.
Against this drumbeat of negative news, a new study by the Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation offers a glimmer of hope.
The study, conducted by Michael White, Frank Bean, and Thomas Espenshade, finds that the much-criticized 1986 immigration reform law has made a significant cut in the number of illegal entries. The study contends that over a 23-month period, the new law resulted in 700,000 fewer arrests along the Southern border - 32 percent lower than the probable rate without the law.
Experts consider the arrest-rate the best measure of the number of illegal entries being made into the US. INS officials estimate that for every arrest made by the US Border Patrol, two people slip undetected into the country.
Although the 1986 law failed to halt illegal immigration entirely, Drs. White, Bean, and Espenshade contend that it has discouraged thousands of people from crossing the border.
The study found the most effective aspect of the bill may be the provision that makes it illegal for any American company to hire an undocumented immigrant. That provision sent a loud message to other countries, the authors say.
But the authors won't say flatly that the new law is working.
``It is clear that the law ... has reduced the flow of undocumented migrants to the US,'' says White.
``In some quarters, the only measure of success would be reducing the flow to zero. On the other side, some critics say that the law has not reduced the flow. We came out somewhere in between.''
INS officials also say that it is too early to judge the law - but the initial evidence is favorable, despite the increase in June, they contend.
Federal reports show that in the most recent October-June period, 580,932 persons were arrested along the Southern border. In contrast, during the same nine-month period in 1985-86, before the law was passed, arrests totaled 1,174,810.
``Generally speaking, we think it is working,'' says an INS spokesman. But even the INS admits that the future remains uncertain. Says the official:
``We don't know what the `push' factors will be in Central America and Mexico. If there is a tremendous push,'' such as an economic crisis in Mexico, ``then our numbers could start to go back up.''
Nor does the White House, without an INS director, seem well positioned to deal with immigration issues. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for Immigration Reform, complains: ``There is no immigration policy apparatus within this administration.''
While some immigration specialists agree that the flow of illegal aliens across the border is generally down, they don't necessarily attribute it to the get-tough provisions of the 1986 bill.
Ironically, they see the amnesty provision of the 1986 law as having more impact. Close to 3 million aliens have been granted legal status under amnesty programs, which means many of them can now cross the border legally. Before they would have gone back-and-forth clandestinely.
David North, a researcher at TransCentury Development Associates in Washington, says the sanctions provision might have initially kept some illegals from coming. But he sees amnesty as the major reason for the drop in INS arrests at the border now.
``The flow has slowed,'' says Mr. North. ``What we really don't know is to what extent the sanctions are working.''
White, however, says his studies could find no effect from amnesty on border crossings.
Other analysts are less equivocal in their assessment of the deterrent effect of the law. Work done at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, for instance, suggests the law had little effect on reducing the number of Mexican nationals - who make up the largest number of illegal immigrants - from entering the US.
The study found that most Mexican migrants continue to find work in the US and that few have returned to their native land because of the sanctions.
``Employer sanctions have had some deterrent effect, but only among a minority of undocumented migrants,'' Wayne Cornelius, director of the center, wrote in a summary of the study released in June.
Moreover, the report highlighted one ominous trend for those interested in sealing off the border: Many aliens are coming from areas of Mexico that have previously not sent many migrants. This means new migrant networks are being created that could lead to more illegal entries in the future.
Research done at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana also suggests the flow of illegal workers into the US continues largely unabated. Analysts there try to gauge the level of migration by photographing and counting undocumented workers as they congregate at popular staging areas in Tijuana.
``We see no significant changes,'' says Jorge Bustamante, director of the college.
Those who think the law has little effect on illegal immigration cite several reasons. One is that the law does nothing to address the reason most aliens come: to flee poverty in their own land.
Many illegals also continue to find work in the US, although not always as easily as before. A good number are able to circumvent the law by using false documents.
Under the 1986 law, employers must see proof of citizenship before hiring workers; but they don't have to determine the authenticity of the documents. The UC San Diego study found that 41 percent of the migrants surveyed who had jobs used false or borrowed papers to secure their work.
Still, even some skeptics of the law contend that it may be too early to make a definitive judgment about its effectiveness. That means all indicators, including the number of arrests along the southern border, will continue to be closely watched.
For now, that yardstick remains as fickle as ever. In the San Diego area - the nation's busiest border crossing - arrests of illegal aliens has gone up the past two months after dropping sharply earlier this year. It remains to be seen whether this is an anomoly or the beginning of a trend.