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A Big Knock on US Door As Immigrants Pour In

MORE Nigerians. More Mexicans. More Iranians. More Chinese than ever before. Immigrants are flowing into the United States at record rates, both legally and illegally, and they are raising contentious issues.

Are these newcomers good for the US? How do they affect the job market? Do they depress wages? Are they straining state welfare budgets? Did illegal Chinese immigration soar to 100,000 persons last year, as one agency estimates?

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Cecilia Munoz, an analyst with an umbrella group of Hispanic organizations, the National Council of La Raza, says ``immigration hysteria'' has gripped the US. Alarmed by public anger over illegal aliens, particularly in California, Florida, and Texas, US officials are taking action.

Attorney General Janet Reno has just unveiled snappy new computer systems that she says will help the US Border Patrol crack down on people who enter the country without proper documents.

One system called ENFORCE, now being tested in San Diego, cuts paperwork and reduces the time to process a Mexican illegal alien from 20 minutes to just three or four. Non-Mexicans, who now take 75 minutes, can be processed by computer in just 15 minutes.

When fully in place, ENFORCE will help nab repeat offenders and save so much time that it will be like having 48 extra agents on the border in San Diego, Ms. Reno says. Critics still contend that the Clinton White House and Congress are dragging their feet. Just as Reno was publicizing the new computer systems, for example, the Washington Post revealed a classified US intelligence report on a vast network smuggling immigrants into the US.

The report says that Russian criminals, in league with Chinese gangs, are smuggling tens of thousands of Chinese into the US by elaborate routes.

To elude detection, smugglers can take two years or more to move Chinese immigrants along complex routes. They may travel from Fujian Province in China to Bangkok, New Delhi, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and London before reaching the US.

One recent case involved 86 Chinese smuggled from the Dominican Republic into Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth, the Post reports. Once in Puerto Rico, the Chinese could move freely into the US without immigration checks.

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Reaching the US can cost Chinese immigrants $25,000 to $35,000 each - a fee that many work off in clandestine US sweatshops. The most popular destination for Chinese is New York City.

While Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California and Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida have led the assault on Washington's failure to stem illegal migration, not everyone is so critical of US policy.

The Urban Institute, which probes social and economic problems, concludes in a recent 104-page report that the effects of heavy immigration on the US job market are ``minimal.'' In many cities and states, immigrants actually create additional jobs for US citizens, the institute concludes. Others, such as economist Donald Huddle at Rice University in Houston, argue that immigrants displace US workers in industries such as construction. They also suppress wages, Dr. Huddle says, and cost state governments billions in welfare.

Yet analysts Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel at the Urban Institute say the actual effect of newcomers on US jobs is ``trivial,'' even at today's historic levels of immigration.

Meanwhile, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) released a report that is likely to increase public misgivings. CIS says the ``immigrant tide is rapidly changing the face of America.'' The number of foreign-born persons living in the US virtually doubled from 10 million to 20 million from 1970 to 1990, CIS reports. By 1994, the number of foreign born was up to 22.7 million.

Last year, CIS says, total immigration reached 1.27 million, including 300,000 illegal immigrants who located in the US permanently. CIS says the actual figures may be even higher, however, especially if recent estimates from the Central Intelligence Agency are correct that illegal Chinese immigration now has climbed to 100,000 a year.

US laws currently permit more legal immigration than all the other nations of the industrialized world combined.

Despite the generous traditions of the US, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, immigration critics say current policy is driving up the nation's population at a dangerously high rate. The long-term result, they say, could be environmental damage, depletion of vital resources like ground water and petroleum, and loss of cropland. These critics will find new ammunition in the CIS study.

CIS notes that without immigration, the US population would begin to level off at 310 million in 2030 and remain at approximately that level until 2050.

With today's levels of immigration, however, US population by 2050 is now projected by the Census Bureau to reach 392 million - or more than 80 million more than it would have been without immigrants.

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