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PERSPECTIVE ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION : We Can Get a Grip on Our Borders : The President must make tough enforcement a policy priority. The burden on California is overwhelming.

<i> Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) serves on the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary committees. </i>

Today, there are 1.3 million Californians out of work. Families throughout our state face overcrowded schools and a scarcity of affordable homes. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 1.3 million undocumented immigrants in California.

In the last month, in San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere along the California coast, boatloads of Chinese immigrants have been summarily dropped off by smugglers. In Tijuana, Mexican authorities recently uncovered a tunnel that would have carried drugs and people under the border.

In Los Angeles County alone, there are an estimated 700,000 illegal residents. Add to this the fact that 3,000 to 5,000 people attempt to cross the Mexico-California border each night--and at least half of them succeed.

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The budget impact of this constant inflow of illegal immigration is extremely high. Gov. Pete Wilson estimates that the state spent $1.7 billion in one recent year to pay for educational, medical and correctional costs associated with undocumented residents. A study for the Board of Supervisors found that 11% of the nearly 18,000 Los Angeles County jail inmates were deportable illegal residents. Another study showed that of those deported once they are released from prison, a shocking 80% return to commit another serious crime.

These hard facts could lead, I fear, to a serious backlash against all immigrants if strong and prudent federal policies to protect our border are not put in place.

Some on the far right want California to become a police state where schoolteachers become informants for the Immigration and Naturalization Service by turning in the children of undocumented residents. Some on the far left object to any form of border enforcement, arguing that undocumented immigrants are seeking a basic human right of survival that can’t be met in their impoverished home countries. I believe there is a great deal of middle ground to map out a reasonable, responsive federal strategy.

I believe that we can protect our borders; other countries do, and so can we. Yet a comprehensive federal immigration strategy must come from the top down: It will take personal directives from President Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to be successful. In addition, it must involve various arms of the federal government, among them: the Justice Department, to enforce the law; the negotiators working on side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement that will involve wage parity with our neighbors to the south; the Health and Human Services Department to address the additional stress on our health-care system caused by illegal immigration, and the executive branch to provide the necessary leadership.

It is time to focus public debate on how to improve a system that is clearly not working. Such a federal plan must:

* Expand the Border Patrol force and retrain agents to insure against abuses.

* Bring the INS under the direct supervision of the attorney general, elevate its budgetary priorities and select a commissioner of the INS who has a strong background in the area of immigration. There are now 215,000 cases pending review by the INS. Until this backlog is addressed, with the necessary leadership and support staff, the problems of the agency will not recede.

* Increase federal penalties for smuggling illegal immigrants into this country.

* Toughen federal laws regarding illegal immigrants who commit crimes. Rather than having our taxpayers underwrite the prison costs, the federal government ought to require that illegal immigrants who commit felonies be returned to their home countries for imprisonment.

Atty. Gen. Reno recently gave me her word that she intends to put a highly experienced director at the helm of the INS, and that she would make control of our nation’s borders a top priority of a newly invigorated INS. Recently, President Clinton spoke out about the need to focus attention on illegal immigration.

After the California congressional delegation and the governor came together to support full funding of federal obligations related to refugee assistance, the President provided nearly $900 million in federal funds in this year’s budget for immigration programs in California. Yet this same budget also reduces the number of Border Patrol agents by nearly 100 nationwide. This is unacceptable. Clearly, we need a comprehensive and consistent federal policy that makes it possible to control illegal immigration.

The words chiseled into the Statue of Liberty--"huddled masses,” “breathe free,” “golden door"--vividly come to mind today. If we allow the meaning of these words to be eroded by hate and prejudice, the American dream will be shattered. If we stand tall and institute a fair immigration policy, we can maintain the dream of legal immigration for countless generations to come.


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