Wading Into Land of Opportunity

Numbers of illegal immigrants rising; some experts say Washington snoozes as problem builds. IN SEARCH OF JOBS

UVERLINDA Maldonaldo, a young Honduran woman, grasped the hand of a friend from Nicaragua and waded into the Rio Grande toward the United States. ``We are in the hand of Christ,'' Miss Maldonaldo declared as they splashed across the waist-high river.

Five minutes later, however, Miss Maldonaldo and her friend were in the hands of the United States Border Patrol, destined for deportation back to Central America. They had entered the US illegally - and gotten caught just 100 feet inside the border.

Maldonaldo had spent 15 days traveling by bus and foot to the US. Minutes after her arrest, she told a Monitor reporter that her goal in America was to ``make money,'' which she planned to send home to her mother, father, four sisters, and four brothers. At 20, she is the eldest child.

``The situation in Honduras is critical,'' she says. ``I must work to make a living for my family.''

Maldonaldo was not sure where she would find a job in the US. It is illegal for an employer to hire an undocumented worker. ``I was told to go to an evangelical church. They would help me,'' she says.

Every day, thousands of men and women, most of them in their teens and 20s like Maldonaldo, are illegally crossing America's southern borders. Most are looking for jobs.

In the past, most undocumented aliens entering the US returned to their native countries after working here for a few months. But that has changed. Today, most illegal entrants will stay in the US.

Unlike Maldonaldo, most illegal aliens get past the Border Patrol and find jobs. They stop either in border cities like Brownsville and San Diego, or farther inland, in cities like Denver, St. Louis, and Houston.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 - passed after years of debate in Congress - was supposed to reduce illegal entries. But today the number of people entering the US unlawfully is once again climbing rapidly.

Long-term consequences

Unless the Bush White House and the Congress take further action, experts warn of several long-term consequences, including:

1. Job displacement. Illegal aliens, willing to work for low wages in substandard conditions, already are taking hundreds of thousands of jobs from Americans. Most affected are low-income US citizens, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

2. A two-tier society. Growing numbers of illegal workers are creating a new underclass of residents in the US. As illegal migrants, they are fearful of deportation. This leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers. In the past, illegal workers have been cheated out of social security benefits, overtime pay, minimum wage guarantees, and safe working conditions.

3. Border instability. Word that US employment laws are not being enforced flashes back to villages in Mexico, Central America, and Asia. This encourages even greater numbers to migrate to the US. That already appears to be happening. Communities of illegal migrants in the US are again rapidly expanding.

The situation is so serious that experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of aliens are now employed illegally in the US.

For example, Donald Huddle, a Rice University economist, says that his research indicates that as many as 200,000 illegal aliens currently reside in the Houston area. Many of them hold jobs in industries like construction, landscaping, and light manufacturing.

Some argue that aliens take only jobs that Americans don't want. But Mr. Huddle says that his research indicates that illegal workers take jobs paying as much as 10 to 12 dollars an hour. Businesses often prefer illegals because employers can sometimes duck the additional payments for Social Security, income taxes, and retirements benefits. He estimates that two out of every three jobs could be filled by Americans.

Huddle has studied illegal immigration for several years. He warns that lax enforcement by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (part of the Department of Justice) is exacerbating the problem. As for the aliens:

``They're able to work because they're able to get falsified documents. And the immigration service does not have enough investigative crews to check them out.''

Arthur Corwin, a former immigration consultant to the House Judiciary Committee, suggests the number of illegals in Houston could even be as high as 300,000 - if one counts non-Spanish-speaking illegals, such as Vietnamese.

Dr. Corwin, who has published a number of books and monographs on migration, says Washington is snoozing as a new crisis builds on the border.

``I'm afraid that in the central office [of the immigration service] you've got a caretaker administration.... About the time that [Alan] Nelson, the outgoing head, became well educated in immigration affairs, he was out [removed by President Bush]. The same with [former attorney general] William French Smith. This is the way Washington works, I'm afraid.'' Document fraud

The US has faced the problem of rising illegal immigration before. But the 1986 law was supposed to correct it. That law, for the first time, made it a serious crime knowingly to employ an illegal immigrant. Employers now are required to obtain documents, such as Social Security cards and drivers' licenses, to verify that a worker is in the US legally.

But the law is being thwarted through document fraud. A booming industry in falsified documents has sprung up along the Mexican border. Some of the fraudulent documents are so good that they can be proved false only by expert examination.

Checking the documents, the job of the INS, requires more personnel and money. But neither Congress nor the White House has sought the necessary funds.

Today, experts on the border say the 1986 law is collapsing in states like Texas and California. Mexicans and Central Americans are being told by friends and relatives in the US that it is safe once again to work there. And harried INS investigators can't stop it.

One in a series of articles about US border problems.

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