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Immigration reform: waiting for manana?

Will President Reagan's austere 1982 budget plans mean immigration reform in the United States must again wait until manana? Momentum for a broad change in US immigration policy is strong this year, in the view of many analysts. The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, set up in 1979 by Congress and President Carter, is putting the final touches on a report to be released March 1 urging major reforms.

At the center of the reforms is a recommendation to beef up existing enforcement programs. But many analysts see such a buildup as increasingly unlikely given the mood in Washington to cut federal spending. President Reagan has not made a specific budget proposal for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which conducts the bulk of immigration enforcement, but few observers expect a sizable increase in funding.

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"It is necessary to get INS more resources, and that seems to fly in the face of the Reagan plan [to cut federal spending]," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming in a telephone interview.

Senator Simpson, a member of the select commission and chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, said enforcement is central to other reforms. For instance, the commission has proposed amnesty for illegal aliens who entered the United States before Jan. 1, 1980. "But Americans will only buy that if they are sure it will not happen again, and the only way to prevent that is better enforcement," he asserted.

On other enforcement-related issues, the select commission proposes:

* Increasing funds for border patrols "substantially." A staff member of the select commission defined this as a 14 percent boost in funding this year, costing an additional $50 million.

* Establishing regional border enforcement posts that would coordinate the efforts of several federal agencies -- the INS, US Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and US Coast Guard.

* Making it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. Violators would be subject to civil penalties and willful offenders could face criminal penalties.

This would require some kind of worker identification program, but the commissioners were unable to agree on what form this would take.

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* Internal reforms in INS to more clearly separate enforcement and service functions within the agency.

The select commission has been seen as a vehicle for generating broad support for immigration reform. President Carter early in his administration proposed some major changes without consultation with Congress, and the plan died through lack of support in the legislature. The select commission was then established to build a coalition for immigration reform. Serving on the commission were members of Congress, Cabinet officers, and some presidential appointees. While the commission was doing its work, INS enforcement funding was not significantly increased on the rationale that it was not wise to spend more money without legislative reforms.

Now, it appears funding constraints may hamper those reforms. "The chances of reform moving forward look very slim," assesses Stanley R. Ross, coordinator of Mexican studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Professor Ross points out that along with an amnesty program, sanctions against employers hiring illegal aliens would also require new enforcement efforts in order to have any credibility. "You just have to be prepared to devote more resources to this whole issue of immigration reform," he said.

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