At a time of high unemployment and growing costs of social services, public concern increases when the United States takes more immigrants and refugees than the rest of the world combined and has less control of its borders than any other industrial country.
Task forces in both the Carter and Reagan administrations began with the obvious need to strengthen border enforcement. The Border Patrol's resources, while greater now than in 1977, are woefully inadequate. Only 450 border patrol officers cover 6,000 miles of border and shore line; a larger force guards the national Capitola and federal buildings in Washington. But any effort to strengthen border enforcement soon confronts the realities of budget constraint and the inertia in an immigration system demoralized by inadequate resources.
In addition, ambiguous policies in our immigration statutes make a mockery of law enforcement. It is illegal to enter the United States without permission, but there are no meaningful penalties for doing so or for hiring a so-called undocumented worker. People who easily penetrate our borders are deported, often to return immediately.
The inevitable alternative -- one that the Carter and Reagan task forces formulated -- is to combine strenghtened enforcement programs with employer sanctions. But employer sanctions require a secure worker identification system that will not intensify discrimination against foreign-looking or foreign-sounding people. And it is unreasonable to expect employers to have resources to determine whether people are in the country legally.
The Reagan task force concluded that an improved Social Security card would meet this need. However, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who has responsibility for the Social Security system, might argue that a secure Social Security card will cost too much, cannot be handled by the Social Security system and will infringe on civil liberties.
The Reagan administration proposed that workers and employers sign a statement that the worker is in the country legally. This proposal is an open invitation to fraud and will not work.
If the Social Security card really cannot be used, a more effective alternative would be the work authorization system developed by the Labor Department for the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. The worker would receive a work authorization number from the local employment office. That office would have the responsibility to determine the worker's eligibility to work. The work would present this number to the employer, whose only responsibility would be to verify the number on a toll-free telephone line. The employer's proof of compliance would be a transaction number from the employment service to be recorded in the worker's file.
An immigration control system must also deal with the question of amnesty for people already in the United States. The Reagan administration has decided to recommend amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for five or more years. Those who are granted amnesty would be required to speak English and would not be permitted to bring family members into the country. These stringent requirements will probably deter many illegal immigrants from seeking amnesty.
It is difficult to make an amnesty program work under the best conditions, but it would be better to have a more lenient program -- not requiring English and permitting the newly legalized residents to bring their spouses and small children.
The Reagan administration also proposed to establish an experimental program to admit 50,000 guest workers over a two-year period. Other than to keep an ill-advised campaign promise, it is hard to see the wisdom of this proposal. We have had enough experiences with the Bracero program (1942-1964) and the European guest worker programs to know that a temporary worker program would do little to relieve the employment pressure in Mexico or to halt illegal immigration.
A system of amnesty for undocumented aliens, together with family unification rights for those whose status is legalized, would automatically increase the legal flow of foreign workers into the United States, continuing the "safety valve." If in future years, we establish a need for additional workers, it would be better to admit such workers as immigrants with full legal rights than to admit them as guest workers with seriously circumscribed rights.
One hopes that the Reagan administration's proposals will be modified in Congress to deal more forcefully with border enforcement, employer sanctions, identification and amnesty. However, those who benefit from illegal immigration and those who believe the cures would be worse than the disease are much better organized than the low-income workers who are the clear losers. Not many strong political organizations assign high priority to controlling illegal immigration. It is nevertheless important to find a solution and avert an inevitable crisis which, unfortunately, might be the only way the country will ever get effective policies and programs to deal with this most important problem.