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EL PASO CAN TEACH INS A LESSON

We've all heard and agreed with the maxim that locking the gate after the horse is out is not a smart strategy. Yet the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service seems determined not only to let the horse out through an unlocked gate but to go chasing after him later.

What's more, a program to keep the gate locked is being undermined.The INS continues to provide increased funding and more agents for Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California, which focuses on apprehension of illegal immigrants after they have crossed the border, while denying help to El Paso, Texas, where Operation Hold the Line has shown amazing progress in securing the border against illegal immigration.

A congressional subcommittee wants to know why.

The official bureaucratic policy, supported by some lawmakers, has been to allow massive illegal immigration before apprehension. But in El Paso, border patrol officers tried something different - making sure the gate stayed locked - and the overwhelming success of the program has embarrassed proponents of the failing INS policy.

The statistics speak for themselves. The 5-month-old San Diego program resulted in a 41 percent decrease in arrests of illegal aliens in November and 39 percent in December. Only one month showed an increase.

By comparison, the first five months of Operation Hold the Line has shown steady progress.

But the statistics are being ignored. In fact, the INS seems bent on punishing the El Paso program. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said two months ago that El Paso should receive 65 new border patrol agents but only 10 have been assigned. Incredibly, El Paso was allotted no new personnel while San Diego was to receive 150 to 200 new agents.

This makes no sense, especially since attempts at illegal immigration are likely to increase with stricter Mexican economic policies intended to stop the decline of the peso.

The INS should not let unreasoning pride stand in the way of reasonable efforts to encourage and learn from a border-patrol system that works. Congressional officials must make sure that happens.