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US immigration overhaul: awaiting Reagan's touch

The United States accepts more immigrants than all the rest of the world together. With declining fertility rates at home, 20 percent of US population growth in the past decade came from immigration.

In addition to legal immigrants, some estimates place illegal immigrants at a million a year, in a situation amounting to an enforcement breakdown on the borders.

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President Reagan's long-awaited immigration policy recommendations, expected this week, follow years of study by commissions and committees. Three major reports have been completed:

1. A Cabinet committee under Attorney General Edward H. Levi submitted a 257- page report in December 1976, declaring, "Our immigration policy, as promulgated under the INA [Immigration and Naturalization Act] is ineffective."

2. A joint Cabinet-congressional group, the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy under the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, submitted a two-year, 453-page study, February 1981, recommending sweeping immigration enforcement changes.

3. President Reagan's 11-member advisory committee under Attorney General William French Smith reviewed the Hesburg study, and issued a report that included among its recommendations proposed sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants and a counterfeit-proof worker identification card.

The Reagan Cabinet last week reviewed the Smith report and "has finished its work" on the issue, according to Thomas P. DeClair, a spokesman for Attorney General Smith. "The President has not made any final decisions," he added.

After years of official study and expert debate, Mr. Reagan returns to Washington from the Ottawa conference to decide what to do about the immigration situation, which some call a "crisis."

Here are some of the findings he'll be taking into account.

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In some US territory along the Mexican border, as well as in other areas of the country, heavy immigration is altering the ethnic identity of communities. Bilingualism is fast appearing.

With 7 million unemployed in the US, estimates of illegal aliens run from 3.5 million to 6 million, most of whom come into the country seeking employment. Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D) of Kentucky makes a guess of "8 or 10 million" illegals today.

The under-financed US Border Patrol apprehended and turned back close to a million illegal immigrants last year.

Proposals for a new immigration program, subject to White House approval, have included:

* Amnesty for illegals who have been in the country continously for five years, or longer, since January 1980.

* A five-year increase in the global ceiling on immigration by 100,000 or more, to take care of the current pressure. Also possible is a doubling of Mexican and Canadian immigrant quotas from 20,000 to 40,000.

* A two-year trial of a guest-worker program under which some 50,000 Mexican workers would take up specific jobs in designated areas.

* Sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegals. This is a radical step in any enforcement effort. Without it, some experts argue, illegal immigration can't be halted.

* Introduction of a new social security card that can't be counterfeited. This is regarded as essential for employers, but is opposed by some civil liberties groups.

* More funds for the Border Patrol and other immigration enforcement.

There has been no major immigration legislation for 15 years, not since the 1965 act. That law was supposed to be more humane and less discriminatory than its predecessor, but its overall effect was to send immigration spiraling. Recent studies have tended to emphasize the same basic point -- that immigration is out of control.

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