ILLEGAL aliens are taking hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States, but overwhelmed federal law enforcement officials say they don't have the manpower to stop it.
One possible solution: a national ID card that every American would be required to show when applying for work.
National ID cards, debated in Washington for a decade, are strongly opposed by civil libertarians. But there are reports this week that the bipartisan US Commission on Immigration Reform has gotten a favorable response from the White House on the concept.
The growing federal frustration over illegal aliens is reflected by Jack Shaw, top investigator for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Mr. Shaw says he currently has 23,000 active reports of aliens working illegally at companies in the US. Yet he has only 350 inspectors to check them out.
In Florida, where illegal migrants work in restaurants, farms, and factories, Mr. Shaw has only 25 investigators in Miami, 5 in Jacksonville, and 4 in Tampa to cover the entire state.
``We could go around the corner and stumble into that many drug traffickers in a given day in Miami,'' Shaw says. Yet in Miami, there are ``thousands of [illegal] aliens seeking positions, seeking jobs.''
Shaw and other officials at INS say they need urgent help from Congress. Shaw estimates it would take about 1,000 agents - triple the current number - to solve the illegal hiring problem.
Even then, it would be difficult. Aliens are using increasingly sophisticated counterfeit documents to gain employment. Shaw says without a better ID system, such as a counterfeit-proof social security card, employers have no way of knowing who is legal and who is not.
When Congress outlawed the hiring of illegal aliens in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, INS began with more than 500 investigators to check for undocumented workers. But there has been a steady erosion. And some of the current 350 agents are sidetracked working on another urgent problem - deportable criminal aliens.
``Congress writes wonderful laws,'' Shaw says. ``We had an antidrug-abuse act in 1986, immigration reform in 1986, [another] antidrug-abuse act in 1988, and [another] immigration act in 1990.... So we've had new responsiblities thrown at us.''
But Congress hasn't come through with the resources to enforce all those new statutes, he says.
Shaw also worries about balance. Federal officials became alarmed about the huge numbers of illegal aliens crossing from Mexico. The Border Patrol was beefed up and redeployed to critical areas. Some improvement is already apparent.
But Shaw cautions that the border activity can distract from the equally serious problems deep inside the US. It is estimated that a total of 3 million to 4.3 million illegal migrants have gotten past the ``thin green line'' of agents at the border and are now living and working inside the US.
Indeed, more aliens are arriving daily, and often there is little the INS can do. The most recent egregious example occurred in May, when Arizona police officers stopped a bus and discovered 46 illegal Mexican aliens.
It was a Friday night. Few INS agents were available. So INS told Arizona police to let the aliens go. Each of the migrants had paid $500 to smugglers to take them to jobs in Atlanta.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, says: ``This is typical. You can't find a state or county police department in the United States [that] believes the INS will come when they are called. They all know the INS doesn't have the capacity to respond.''
Mr. Stein says even the bleak picture painted by Shaw is an understatement. ``The reality is horrific. There really is no interior enforcement, unless you are talking about a major violator....''
Even so, Warren Leiden, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says INS is correct to put its first priority on the border, which was virtually ignored during the 12 Reagan-Bush years.
Mr. Leiden also praises new INS efforts to deport criminal aliens. The number deported has risen from only 957 in 1983 to 20,285 in 1993.
``Before we start worrying about illegal factory workers, I would much rather the government focus on criminal felons. That has to be the priority,'' Leiden says.