NOT since the collapse of the 18th Amendment has a federal enforcement proceeding been so flouted as the current immigration law, which is supposed to limit entrance across the southern border of the United States. It is not being enforced, officials know it is not being enforced, and it is a question whether Congress will act.
The Senate has twice passed bills to control the flood of illegals and to penalize employers who knowingly hire them. It is a question now whether the House will act. The pending Simpson-Mazzoli bill is opposed by blocs of Hispanic-American voters, although some elements support it. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill has pledged to let it come up next month with a week's debate starting June 11. Some see in the contest a test of the future ethnic composition of parts of the United States.
The US has a high-income population of 236 million with a natural increase of only 0.7 percent. Mexico has a low-income population of 78 million with a natural increase of 2.6 percent (three times the US rate). In short, the US is practicing population self-restraint, Mexico isn't. There is an ethical question in this. Does the US owe a duty to Mexico, as a friend and neighbor, to let citizens come across the border to reduce social pressure at home? Signs of unrest are visible.
The US has not been harsh in its immigration policies. It seeks to limit total immigration to 450,000 a year by one proposal, which is larger than the immigrants admitted by all the other countries of the world combined. New immigrants have increased the overall productiveness of America. But now there is unemployment. The question is, how far, how many?
World population is about 5 billion. It is growing fast. A country like China moves to control population which at 1,034 billion, is the world's largest. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the global annual population increase is now about 1.7 percent. This is a doubling time of 40 years at the current rate, but few think the current rate is sustainable - there are already hardships and famines in many areas. Says Lester R. Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute and project director of a new study, ''State of the World - 1984,'' the problem is global: population growth ''is placing intolerable pressures on the Earth's land, water and energy supplies.''
In a Democratic presidential debate May 2 candidates Walter F. Mondale, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Sen. Gary Hart all came out against the Simpson-Mazzoli bill as written. The Reagan administration supports the bill, which has now entered 1984 presidential politics. Mr. Mondale said ''there's one fundamental flaw'' in the pending bill: It would require people ''to carry around a card proving you're an American.'' The bill orders employers to verify the legality of workers they hire. Mr. Mondale approves another provision, an amnesty for some illegal immigrants if they have been in the country some time. His final words were, ''Let's try effective law enforcement and let's do it in a humane way.'' The other candidates agreed: Mr. Hart noted that he had voted against the bill; he thought the employer sanction ''directly jeopardizes civil liberties of minority Americans.''
So that's the issue. On one side evidence indicates that US immigration and refugee policies are near a breakdown; on the other the Hispanic voting bloc is growing though there is some uncertainty about its position. I find it hard to see how enforcement can be made effective without some identification formula; social security cards, driver's licenses, or what not.