BY SEPT. 30, well over a million people will have crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. illegally in the previous 12 months. Illegal aliens, mainly from Mexico and Central America, have arrived at the same rate annually since 1989, the Immigration and Naturalization Service says -- and the trend is upward.
Up to 5 million people are living in the U.S. without legal immigration papers. About 700,000 immigrants enter each year legally.
A Tulane University demographer, Leon Bouvier, projects that at least 15 million immigrants, including illegals, will arrive during the 1990s. The influx, he projects, will continue unabated until at least the year 2020. Thus we can expect perhaps 30 million or more newcomers in the first two decades of the 21st century. That will make the immigration wave, which began in 1985, the longest and biggest ever, adding 61 million people to the population.
This influx provided the tinder for rioting in Los Angeles and the Washington Heights section of New York City. About 45 percent of South Central Los Angeles is Hispanic, the Census Bureau says, and many of the newcomers participated in the riots.
Incredibly, the immigration question has received no attention from Bill Clinton, President Bush and their parties, although the statistics expose a formidable problem that increasingly impinges on every aspect of our lives.
California, November's biggest prize, is a basket case, largely because of a flood of immigrants in the 1980s that increased its population by 30.5 percent, to 31 million. The demands on social, health and educational services are soaring and threaten to cause them to break down. No wonder California is broke. Its budget deficit is a record $14.5 billion. Even before the Los Angeles riots, it sought $1.1 billion in U.S. aid to cover not only welfare and education needs but also health care for 1.3 million newly legalized immigrants.
And no wonder 7 out of 10 Californians think the state should limit immigration. That seems to be the national consensus, too. A Roper poll taken between March 27 and April 14 found that 69 percent of respondents would like to "reduce" immigration. Eight out of 10 think our immigration policies "need revision."
What revisions would prove effective and reasonable?
First, a freeze on immigration for up to five years (except for spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal residents) could prove beneficial. This moratorium would reduce unfair competition for scarce jobs; give our economy a chance to recover; cut social, health and educational costs and relieve pressure on the environment. Above all, it would give the millions of immigrants here an opportunity to assimilate.
Second, we must launch an all-out drive to halt illegal entries. This would involve erecting unsurmountable barriers along the 50 miles of southern border where 90 percent of illegal aliens cross. The cost, about $300 million, hardly compares with the $5 billion spent yearly on benefits for illegal families. The Border Patrol should be increased to 6,000 agents (4,324 are now assigned to 2,000 miles of border), and the National Guard and Army should be used when necessary.
Third, we should offer Mexico, the biggest source of immigrants, an incentive: The U.S. would underwrite a joint effort to "green" its northern border, enabling Mexico to increase food production and farm employment in order to deter Mexicans from heading north for food and work.
Fourth, President Bush should air the issue with President Carlos Salinas of Mexico and try to persuade him to discard the Mexican policy of considering the U.S. a safety valve for its vast army of unemployed. He should obtain Mr. Salinas' approval to deport illegals into the Mexican interior, where they usually originate -- a key point, since it would drastically cut the number of illegals who easily reenter the U.S. because Mexican law permits them to be deported only to the Mexican side of the border.
Our immigration policy is conducive to the proliferation of a foreign underclass that may become permanently unassimilable, thus fostering inner-city ghettoes and ethnic tensions. What's more, the economic effects of the growth of such an underclass will weaken our power to compete in the global marketplace.
Daniel James is author of "Illegal Immigration -- An Unfolding Crisis." He writes from Columbia.