Twice a year, a young Mexican named Juan illegally crosses the chaparral and rocky slopes of the United States border. He makes his way to New York, where he works in restaurants and earns wages seven times those in his native village.
His brief sojourns under hardship and secrecy, like those for a rising number of poor Mexicans who migrate in and out of the US, are likely to get the attention of Congress and a new president in 1981.
President-elect Ronald Reagan's advisers are working on a program to allow temporary visas for large numbers of Mexicans who, like Juan and a majority of undocumented workers, seek to earn money which they can take back to Mexico.
In September campaign speech in Texas, Mr. Reagan promised to admit Mexican workers "for whatever length of time they want to stay."
He went further than some Southwestern US governors, who met with their Mexican counterparts in June and advocated visas for "guest workers" of only three of 12 months. Questions remain on whether any Reagan initiative would be tied into amnesty for present illegal residents, beefed up border patrols, employer sanctions, or higher quotas for permanent Mexican immigrants.
Legalizing the Mexican labor flow will be just one measure likely to come up next year as sudden waves of migrants to the US, such as Cubans and Cambodians, have increased pressures to rewrite US immigration laws, many of which date to the 1920s.
In ealy 1981, a presidential commission will begin to offer recommendations to Congress on the entire scope of illegal and legal entrants. Among preliminary proposals is a Mexican guest-worker program of limited scope, coupled with penalties on employers who hire Mexicans illegally.
"We are taking immigrants in greater quantity than in recent history and at a time of recession," says Jerry Tinker, immigration specialist on the US Senate Judiciary Committee. A committee report finds, "The choice between the admission of foreign workers on a legal or illegal basis. . . will have to be made in the 1980s."
By far, Mexicans comprise the largest illegal immigration, with estimates of 0.5 million to 4 million undocumented workers in the US. Social scientists, studying US trends, predict that demand for Mexican workers will increase by 5 million to 15 million for the next two decades as fewer young Americans enter the labor market, and women and minority workers move out of unskilled jobs.
This floating population also raises long- held American fears of "an invasion of aliens," says David D. Gregory, sociologist at Dartmouth College. "Temporary immigration runs counter to the nation's traditional intellectual and moral framework based upon the popular misconception that immigrants in our past have invariably sought to become permanent US citizens."
Historically, however, about one-third of all immigrants to the US from most nations eventually return to their home countries or leave the US, according to recent studies for the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.
A Republican-controlled Senate and White House are expected to favor US businesses which have sought a more open border with Mexico that would allow a larger labor pool.
"Democrats are under too much pressure from US labor," says Jorge Bustamante, a Mexican sociologist. "Republicans are inclined to look at just the economic benefits of immigration."
One possible barrier to a temporary visa program, however, is traditional US labor opposition against greater Mexican migration on grounds it would take jobs away from Americans. REcent court rulings, however, have begun to allow undocumented workers to be unionized, a move that has given a few labor leaders new ideas about possibly gaining new union members and improving working conditions generally.
"There is a chance of attitude in the AFL- CIO on documented aliens," acknowledges Communications Workers of America official Rudi Mendoza, a US citizen by birth who is of Mexican descent.
President Carter's secretary of labor, Ray Marshall, contends that if the illegal flow of Mexicans were stopped, unemployment would be below 4 percent. Yet several studies indicate temporary Mexican workers contribute to the US economy by paying taxes, spending 70 percent of their earnings here, and turning down social services for fear of being caught.
In fact, some researchers contend that more Mexican workers would help bolster the ailing social security system.
"The ultimate solution, t seems to me, is to help our friends in Mexico to push forward with the great national project of creating an agricultural and industrial base that offers better opportunities for all the Mexican peo ple," said Reagan Sept. 16 in Harlingen, Texas.
A nation of 67 million people with 65 percent under 24 years of age and 48 million not working, Mexico's fertility rate has dropped from 3.6 percent to 2.9 percent in the last few years, reported President Jose Lopez Portillo in October. But the decrease is not least another decade.
President Lopez Portillo last year launched a program to stimulate 4.2 percent yearly increase in jobs. But, points out Dr. Wayne Cornelius, director of the US-Mexican relation program at the University of California at Davis, despite the nation's new oil wealth, job-creating efforts can be expected to only absorb new workers but make no appreciable reduction in the backlog of unemployed workers.
And he adds: "There has been a long-term demand in the US for Mexican workers , and it is increasing."