I sometimes wonder whether a country as loosely governed as the United States has the will and capacity to deal with such controversial matters as handgun control and illegal immigration. Every poll for years has shown that citizens want stiffer gun control but Congress doesn't vote it. And as for immigration laws, violations are almost as flagrant as the violations of the dry laws 30 years ago.
Take the immigration law for the moment. One day last week a dozen witnesses appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy under Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming. Very little got into the papers about it. They disagreed, and their testimony had to compete with subjects like sale of AWACS and the budget. They discussed the complicated new 10-part Reagan immigration package.
It is hard to know whether to take it seriously; this is because of a seeming inconsistency: the immigration service is desperately undermanned. President Reagan named a blue-ribbon, 16-member commission on immigration control chaired by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh which brought in recommendations and a report. But the basic thing needed most to halt illegals, I think, is more money. The administration seems ready to trim funds for the service just as it is doing for many other services. It makes one wonder about the seriousness of the whole immigration drive.
An overcrowded sailboat capsized a mile off the Florida beach last month drowning 33 Haitians seeking illegal entry. It was a shocking sight, but more Haitians will come. Illegals come in all the time. A government witness before the Simpson committee said there were from 3.5 million to 6 million illegal aliens in the country already, and perhaps half a million more slip in every year. It must be said that this is a very modest estimate, others put the illegals here as high as 10 million or 12 million. Most of them are male and between 18 and 36.
In the past 14 years, testified Doris M. Meissner, acting immigration commissioner, apprehensions of deportable aliens by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have increased ''20-fold.'' Illegals apprehended have averaged in the past four years a million a year. Sixty percent are Mexicans. Efforts to enforce our national policies, she said simply, have ''failed.'' We must try to do better.
The debate in the first part of the Reagan program is on the proposal to legalize the status of a certain number of the illegal aliens. There are just too many, the administration argues, to send them all back. A big category would be given what the administration calls ''temporary residency status'' and others call ''amnesty.'' (To the administration, I might note, ''illegals'' are not illegals, they are ''undocumented aliens.'')
In a matter as complicated and overpowering as this it is possible for reasonable people to disagree. Trying to clean up the illegal alien mess one has to begin somewhere. That's what a majority of the Hesburgh committee in one way or another said.
Here is a witness who says ''yes'' to the amnesty plan; another who says ''yes but,'' and finally one who says ''no.''
Diego C. Asencio, assistant secretary for consular affairs, Department of State, favors the plan. Limited legal status would go to certain illegals who applied for it, who entered the US prior to Jan. 1, 1980, who resided here 10 years, and who in the meantime would be debarred from certain social programs. To deport the whole army of resident illegals in one great drive, he said, is possible in theory but not in fact. You can't throw 6 million to 10 million people out of the country at once.
Harvey Ruvin, commissioner of Dade County, Florida, speaking for the National Association of Counties, says ''yes but.'' Illegals are here because of failure of the federal government, he says; it's Washington's fault. If amnestied aliens are allowed to stay here but are cut off from certain types of federal family aid (food stamps, child aid are proposed) the burden will fall on counties and localities. That is unfair, he argues. Furthermore, is the federal government really going to prevent illegal entries in the future? He gives a very tentative ''yes but.''
The American Legion says ''no.'' Its spokesman, Paul S. Egan, called the plan ''unworkable, impractical, and unjustifiable.'' Who is going to do the paperwork on those amnestied illegals in the proposed 10 years they wait final clearance? he demands. They have broken the law, he says in effect, boot them out. They are taking jobs from unemployed citizens.
Those are some of the differences just at the beginning of trying to get new legislation. In the meantime the impoverished INS border patrol hardly gets gasoline enough to keep its scout cars running.