SUPPOSE THE long-awaited Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill gets stalled in Congress again this year. The measure, which was passed by the Senate in the 97th Congress and by both houses last year, has two major provisions: it discourages illegal immigration by penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers, and it grants an amnesty to illegal aliens who have been in the country continuously for a number of years. Both ideas have merit and ought to be adopted, but both also have opponents who have managed, by procedural maneuver and refusal to compromise, to block passage. Can any other steps be taken -- though they would not be as effective -- to get illegal immigration under control?
The Brookings Institution has just published a book by Milton D. Morris, director of research at the Joint Center for Political Studies, that considers this question. The author begins by emphasizing that while illegal immigration is widespread, may be damaging to the country and needs to be controlled, the United States has not lost its capacity to absorb immigrants and to benefit from their presence. We can and should continue to accept large numbers of new entrants, but the manner in which we do so is unsettled because of our society's ambivalence about immigration. Concerns about labor markets, the cost of assistance programs, population growth and cultural changes are widespread. But Americans also believe that this country should be a land of economic opportunity for the oppressed, a sanctuary for the persecuted and a guardian of the civil liberties of all -- even illegal aliens -- who reside here. These sometimes conflicting concerns result in political stalemate.
Immigration problems, greatly exacerbated in recent years by economic and political conditions in other countries and the ease of international travel, could be addressed by some bureaucratic changes even before major policy questions are resolved. Mr. Morris suggests, for example, that coordination could be improved among the six agencies that administer federal immigration laws, and that some restructuring of responsibilities would improve performance.
The two agencies with major responsibility, the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the State Department, need more resources, particularly computers for processing applications and assembling data. The presence of the Border Patrol, in fixed and mobile units along our borders, should be greatly increased. Education of the public and cooperation with local law enforcement and social agencies would improve the administration of existing laws and programs.
These measures, and others detailed in Mr. Morris' book, are directed at managing a problem, not solving it. But in the absence of major immigration reform legislation -- which still needs to be enacted -- they should be taken up.