ILLEGAL immigrants and the United States Border Patrol have played a cat-and-mouse game along the 2,000-mile Mexican frontier for decades. Until now, the illegals have won handily.
Now Attorney General Janet Reno says it's time to shift the balance.
She has called for a bigger budget and 1,010 more front-line agents for the understaffed Border Patrol.
Reno's key target is the San Diego area, where at least 500,000 aliens slipped illegally across the border into the US last year.
Democrats immediately hailed Ms. Reno for undertaking a politically sensitive task that other attorneys general have studiously avoided.
Rep. Lynn Schenk (D) of California, who represents San Diego, lauds Reno for ``doing more for this issue [than] decades of [her] predecessors.''
Republicans quickly countered, however, that Reno's announcement was only a beginning. Rep. Randy Cunningham (R) of California, another San Diego congressman, says, ``While the administration's new border enforcement initiative is appreciated, it's still just half a loaf - maybe three-quarters of a loaf.''
Reno's action comes in response to a growing chorus of protest about immigration from several large, politically powerful states.
They include the nation's four biggest: California, New York, Texas, and Florida.
Several governors, led by Pete Wilson (R) in California and Lawton Chiles (D) in Florida, are threatening lawsuits and political mobilization unless Washington halts the illegal flow. They complain that illegal immigrants are absorbing billions of dollars in state welfare funds, taking jobs, filling prisons, and pushing local and state governments toward bankruptcy.
President Clinton vowed last July that the US would not surrender its borders to millions of foreign nationals who attempt to enter the country illegally. One of his first actions was to appoint Doris Meissner, a widely-respected immigration specialist, as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which includes the Border Patrol.
Mrs. Meissner says the Reno plan will go a long way toward addressing complaints from states like California. The two-year, $368 million effort will focus on five major problems:
* Border control ($180 million). Add 500 new agents and redeploy 510 current agents from desk jobs to beef up enforcement by the end of 1995, mostly in San Diego and El Paso, Texas. Erect new fences and lighting in San Diego, and fingerprint all illegal crossers.
* Criminal aliens ($55 million). One out of every 4 federal prisoners is a foreign national, many of whom entered the country illegally. New procedures will be introduced to speed deportation.
* Asylum reform ($64 million). Hundreds of thousands of foreigners claim asylum to gain entrance to the US. Many are here fraudulently. In those cases, INS will implement a timely process to speed their departure.
* Employer sanctions ($38 million). Counterfeit documents help many illegals get work authorization. INS will improve the security of work documents, and target employers who historically hire illegals.
* Naturalization ($30 million). INS will try to make the system ``user friendly'' to encourage legal immigrants to become naturalized US citizens. Community-based organizations may be allowed to conduct tests of language proficiency and civics, which are needed to gain citizenship.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California says, ``I very strongly applaud what the attorney general has done.'' But he cautions that the nation's force of border patrol officers must be more than doubled to approximately 10,000 to seal the border.
Similarly, Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida calls all this ``a positive thing,'' but complains it is ``too modest.'' Altogether, it is ``not nearly bold enough to address the problems that we have with immigration.''
One of Representative McCollum's key concerns is the large population of criminal aliens, many of whom walk free after completing their sentences, even though they are in the US illegally.
Republicans say that solving problems like criminal aliens and political asylum will require changes in the law, not just new directives from the attorney general. The administration opposes that - apparently due to fear that the sour public mood toward immigrants will prompt Congress to crack down too sharply.
Even Reno admits her proposals won't do the job entirely. ``It's not enough to control the Southwest border,'' she says.
Analysts agree, but note that it's a big step forward compared to the Bush administration, which cut manpower of the Border Patrol.
Meanwhile, some groups worry that Reno's plan may go too far. Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, says ``there are elements of [Reno's] announcement which are profoundly troubling to Hispanics.'' Mr. Yzaguirre's main concern: That Clinton may be moving toward a national ID card, which he says would heighten discrimination against Latinos.