RESPONDING to public outcries, Washington is moving urgently on several fronts to secure America's borders against illegal immigration and other crimes.
On Capitol Hill, House Republicans yesterday rolled out a tough, 70-page bill designed to crack down on immigrant smuggling, criminal aliens, fraudulent documents, and other border problems.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Justice Department officials unveiled their own program to discourage the filing of thousands of bogus applications for political asylum.
The twin efforts reflect a growing co8nsensus here that illegal immigration and its heavy costs, including billions of dollars for welfare and free medical care, have grown into a national crisis.
Millions of people are seeking entry to the United States, often illegally, and they are finding new and more sophisticated ways of circumventing US laws, officials say.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the Republican Task Force on Illegal Immigration, says the GOP proposal is ``the most comprehensive bill ever introduced into the House to control illegal immigration.''
The bill would more than double the number of US Border Patrol agents - from 4,000 to 10,000. It would also streamline the process for deporting criminal aliens, who comprise 1 out of every 4 inmates in federal prisons.
Representative Smith says the two keys to the border problem are the ``twin magnets'' that motive illegal aliens: American jobs and federal benefits. The bill makes it harder for illegal aliens to take US jobs or to access government benefits. Smith estimates illegal aliens are costing US taxpayers at least $14 billion a year in government programs.
While the GOP bill awaits action in Congress, the Justice Department is moving ahead with its own program. On Thursday, Justice officials invoked new regulations that will make it far more difficult to circumvent US refugee asylum rules.
Gregg Breyer, national director of asylum for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), says officials are being swamped with tens of thousands of bogus applications for asylum.
He cites a recent example: INS received 250 letters, all with identical wording, from 250 Mexicans who allegedly lived at the same address in Detroit. The letters were mailed from Los Angeles.
The letters were what officials call ``boilerplate.'' Using key words, such as ``fear of persecution,'' the applicants' letters automatically required the INS to give the applicants a formal hearing.
However, since INS already has a backlog of 360,000 asylum cases, and since the number of backlogged cases grows by 12,000 a month, the applicants know their chances of being deported are slim.
Meanwhile, the request for political asylum has (until now) required INS to give the applicant a work permit, even if the person has entered the US illegally.
All that changed yesterday in two ways. First, a new rule allows INS to return an application that is clearly boilerplate. Officials can demand more information before they process it and - perhaps most important - before they pass out the valuable work permit.
Second, INS officials say they will begin targeting persons who charge fees, reportedly ranging from $300 to $800, to prepare and send in bogus applications.
Willfully submitting an improper application is illegal, and Mr. Breyer says: ``We're going to try to ... put a few of them in jail.''
Looking further ahead, the Republican bill could have an even greater impact on the border crisis, should it pass. Prepared by a 32-member Republican task force, the bill focuses on virtually every major problem area at the borders. It contains dozens of provisions. Among them:
* Border fees. Imposes a crossing fee of approximately $1.50 per person to collect $2.3 billion over five years to pay for stronger border enforcement.
* Employment of illegals. Increases penalties to up to 10 years imprisonment for persons who knowingly contract with another party to provide employment for illegal aliens.
* Alien smuggling. Permits prosecution under racketeering statutes of persons accused of smuggling.
* Documents. Calls for an improved, tamper-resistant Social Security card to verify eligibility for employment.
* Benefits. Prohibits payment of federally funded unemployment, housing, and welfare benefits, except emergency medical care, for illegals.
* Sanctuary cities. Cuts federal aid by 20 percent to any city that adopts a policy of noncooperation with enforcement of federal laws against illegals.