THE US Department of Justice has proposed a ditch near San Diego to prevent vehicles carrying illegal aliens from crashing the border. It's a fairly straightforward idea, though it won't do much to discourage the thousands who cross on foot. But critics, on both sides of the border, are outraged. They see the proposed ditch as an insult to Mexico and as symbolic of a US desire to turn its back on the economic problems to the south.
Certainly the question should be asked whether the gain from such a barrier is worth the lost good will at a time when Mexico and the US are striving for better relations. The same goes for a proposal for miles of reenforced border fences put forward by a private group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Strengthening and repair may be needed, but it should be pursued in consultation with the Mexican government, so that motives and intentions can be clarified.
The greatest hope for slowing the flow of illegal immigrants into the US remains the employer-sanctions provisions of the 1986 immigration reform law, which have just begun to take full effect, and long-term improvement in the economies of Mexico and Central America.
Meanwhile, the people will come, including thousands of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans fleeing not only devastated economies, but war and political persecution. The question has arisen whether those who ask for asylum in the US should be kept at the border pending review of their request, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service wants, or be allowed to join family members in other parts of the country. A federal judge has indicated he'll probably find for the INS.
But stacking up people at the border will probably only increase the incentive to enter illegally, as well as overwhelm communities in south Texas and make conditions worse for the refugees. At the least, the INS should accelerate its processing of asylum applications, as well as the deportation process if asylum is denied - as usually happens, for instance, with well over 90 percent of Salvadorans.
Nicaraguans fare much better on asylum, which raises other questions of fairness.
At present, countless Central Americans enter the US illegally or disperse through the country as asylum or deportation processes lag. Many will find work and start sending money home - money crucial to the economies of places like El Salvador. Should they be sought out and deported, or is that just adding to the fundamental problem?
That fundamental problem, of course, is economic and political turmoil in the countries of origin. Ultimately, the best check on illegal immigration is US commitment to economic development, debt relief, and peace in the hemisphere. That commitment will pay off, among other ways, in less pressure at the border.