Somewhere in between the last two attempts at immigration reform, the bulk of America's illegal immigrants slipped through unaccounted for. The landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was supposed to account for them. And this year's expansion of legal immigration leaped over them. Illegal aliens are still here by the millions.

The 1986 law granted amnesty to some 1.7 million illegal aliens, but millions -- probably the majority -- of immigrants believed to be living in the United States were not covered by the amnesty, because they entered the country too late in the game to satisfy the law. Their number is growing.

The solution to the problem of hemorrhaging illegal immigration is elusive and varies with political philosophies. Some prefer a law enforcement approach -- beef up the border patrols and penalize employers who hire illegal aliens. Others argue that there is no way to stem the flow, and why should we bother when the illegals take jobs that Americans either won't do for the same price or won't do at all?

If it's unclear who is right, it is painfully obvious who has been wrong -- policy makers in Washington. Congress in particular is unwilling to muster the political gumption to address the problem. Radical reforms might even be necessary, and any way the government goes it is likely to bump into opposition. Yet all Congress has been able to do is pass laws that skirt the invisible majority of illegal immigrants.

It is commendable that Congress sought to acknowledge and document some of the illegal immigrants in 1986. But only a fraction of the estimated 8 million to 15 million illegal aliens qualified for amnesty that year because so many had entered the country after the cutoff date in 1982. To embrace all illegal aliens, regardless of the date they slipped into the country, would have been political suicide for Congress. But 1982 was not a magic date for the immigrants. They continue to stream across the borders no matter what year it is or what their chances are for amnesty.

Examples abound of ways to attack the problem. Northern and Central European nations have long used "guest worker" visas to control the flow of job-seekers from poorer nations. The philosophy is to legitimize and regulate a reasonable number of workers who perform a needed service and who would take the jobs anyway whether they were legal or not. The alternative is to tolerate an uncontrollable deluge of immigrants that would come if there were no legal options for them to immigrate.

Greater development aid from the United States to its Latin American neighbors would create more jobs there and help to stabilize the region.

Americans don't have to accept all comers as residents entitled to their piece of the pie. There is only so much to go around. But branding the unwelcome as illegal and then allowing them to come ahead anyway settles nothing.