ARRESTS of illegal aliens along the United States-Mexican border are climbing toward 1 million this year - a trend that disturbs officials in the Bush administration. Every day, US Border Patrolmen arrest approximately 3,000 aliens who have crossed into this country from Mexico without the proper documents. Most are Mexican citizens, although they also come from more than 60 other countries, including the Philippines, China, and Iran.
The rate of arrests, which had declined steadily since 1986, rose sharply this year during the winter months, and has continued to increase through the latest reporting period in June.
On July 8, in a surprise raid, the patrol nabbed 952 aliens in five hours at a highway checkpoint in San Clemente, Calif., 70 miles from the border.
``That's too many,'' admits Gene McNary, commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Officials believe that hundreds of thousands of aliens are slipping past US border guards on the thinly patrolled southern frontier.
Mr. McNary, who took charge of the INS last October, has deployed additional patrolmen along the Southwest border to stanch the flow. But he concedes even greater efforts are needed.
``It's a horrible situation [along the southern border], and it must be our policy to try to stop it, to enforce the law. I believe it can be done,'' he told a recent meeting at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The INS is launching several initiatives, some of them controversial, to make that happen.
A new pilot program is just getting under way in San Diego, for example, to identify, prosecute, and imprison border criminals and others who repeatedly cross the border unlawfully.
``When we apprehend those who've entered illegally, we are going to fingerprint them,'' McNary says. ``It's not going to be anything fancy, just a way to identify the most serious offenders.
``I want to put the worst of them - the smugglers and border bandits - in detention and go for deportation orders. Once they're deported, the next time they come through, they'll be arrested, and then their case will go to the US attorney.''
Crossing the border in defiance of a deportation order is a felony.
The commissioner says border enforcement currently resembles a revolving door. More than 80,000 people a month are arrested. Patrolmen go through a lengthy paperwork process, then return most of the aliens back to the border for voluntary deportation. But within hours, many of the aliens are back in the US.
``I've been there and talked to some who had already been caught twice that day,'' McNary says. ``That's ridiculous. It's not law enforcement. It's not professional.''
The INS plan will require expanded jail capacity. INS officials say they are looking at a location in Florence, Ariz., to put up temporary detention facilities.
The INS effort draws praise from some analysts, including Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
Mr. Stein says the success of McNary's efforts will depend on the level of support for INS from McNary's boss, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. ``Without support from Thornburgh, McNary's proposal does not have a good chance,'' Stein says.
Other McNary plans are drawing mixed reviews. The Los Angeles Times recently disclosed that the commissioner hopes to institute a sweeping reorganization of the INS by the end of the year.
According to the Times, McNary would centralize power in the 15,000-member service by stripping authority from four regional offices in California, Texas, Minnesota, and Vermont. In the past, some of those offices were run by outspoken INS officials, such as Harold Ezell, former Western regional commissioner, who ruffled feathers in Washington.
Henceforth, INS's 34 district offices and 21 Border Patrol sectors would report directly to the central office. Investigations and intelligence activities would be initiated out of Washington.
McNary, known as a skillful manager in his previous position as chief executive of St. Louis County, Mo., was given a mandate to shape up the $1 billion-a-year agency. One of his first orders had the effect of muzzling Border Patrol agents, who were openly complaining to reporters and members of Congress about the lack of enforcement of immigration laws.
The commissioner says the 1992 budget, his first at the INS, will emphasize four priorities:
To improve data processing at the INS, which retains records on 27 million persons.
To increase detention space in cooperation with the US Bureau of Prisons.
To increase the number of INS investigators.
To access the federal Automated Fingerprint Information System.