AMERICA'S immigration laws are under fire in Congress - but the Clinton White House has thrown its full weight against any major reforms coming from Capitol Hill.
Across the nation, especially in California, Florida, Texas, and other large immigrant-receiving states, an estimated 4 million illegal migrants have created a supercharged political atmosphere.
A growing number of congressmen demand rapid expansion of the 4,000-member United States Border Patrol, expulsion of criminal aliens, and secure ID cards to weed out illegal residents.
The Coast Guard this week seized a Taiwanese-registered fishing trawler crowded with more than 100 Chinese. Smugglers were apparently attempting to bring the immigrants illegally to the US.
Millions of people, particularly from Asia and Latin America, are pounding on America's door requesting admittance. Even so, administration officials balk at demands for tougher laws aimed at illegal aliens.
Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says with public indignation on the rise, ``this is not an atmosphere within which one should want to see legislation on immigration.''
Ms. Meissner insists the Clinton administration can handle the problem with new regulations. It also supports higher outlays for immigration inspectors and judges, and backs a modest expansion of the Border Patrol.
``The immigration system is not broke,'' she insists. ``And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.''
Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Task Force on Illegal Immigration, strongly disagrees. He calls illegal immigration ``a time bomb across the country.
Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California blames the nation's capital. ``In Washington, illegal immigration is too often viewed as simply a matter of politics,'' he says. ``But out in the states, illegal immigration [is] a matter of how well we can educate our children, whether or not we can keep dangerous criminals off the streets, and how we'll provide heath care to those who can't afford it.''
Florida officials are seeking permission from the INS to deport 4,100 nonviolent illegal aliens languishing in the state's overcrowded prisons. Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) says the plan would save Florida taxpayers millions of dollars.
Mr. Smith's state shares hundreds of miles of border with Mexico, the largest source of illegal immigration. Under his leadership, Republicans have advanced a comprehensive bill with four major provisions.
The bill would sharply increase the number of border patrolmen from 4,000 to 10,000 - enough to shut down much of the illegal traffic between the US and Mexico.
It would eliminate federal benefits for illegal residents except education and emergency health care.
The bill would phase in a tamper-resistant ID card designed to prevent illegal aliens from getting work. A telephone verification system would help safeguard the ID system.
Finally, it would speed deportation of criminal aliens once they've served sentences in the US. Aliens make up a growing portion of the prison population, including 18,000 housed in California jails at $402 million a year.
On March 15, New York City police officer Sean McDonald was gunned down while trying to break up a robbery at a Bronx tailor shop. Arrested and indicted for second-degree murder was Rodolfo Rodriguez, an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
The McDonald case angers Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York, who blames the killing on ``our faltering immigration process.''
Mr. Rodriguez had been arrested on Jan. 11, charged with selling crack cocaine. Despite his immigration status, he was considered a ``low priority'' case and was released on his own recognizance to await trial.
The system is too loose, and administration officials seem bent on making it worse, Smith says. On April 1, Meissner announced the INS would no longer send fingerprints of aliens to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check criminal backgrounds.
Estimated savings: $3 million this year. Last year, the checks turned up 9,000 aliens with criminal records. Smith says in exchange for the savings, America would have gotten more criminals from abroad and more crowded jails.
On Tuesday, however, Meissner reversed herself under pressure from Congress. Before the reversal, INS spokesman Verne Jervis said the fingerprint program gives little return for dollars spent. ``The fingerprints aren't foolproof,'' he says. Trained INS officers don't take them. Instead, fingerprints are supplied by volunteer agencies who work with immigrants, such as the US Catholic Conference.
Juan Carolos Guzman, a teen-age Colombian, arrived in Miami last summer by stowing himself in an airplane. Deported, he returned illegally to New York in December. This week he was charged with dealing in stolen goods.
Some congressmen, frustrated by White House resistance, are trying to toughen laws on a piecemeal basis by offering immigration amendments to other bills, like earthquake relief.
Meissner complains: ``This is no way to legislate.''
Yet even a Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, cannot get hearings for his major immigration legislation. In those circumstances, amendments may be the only alternative.