WASHINGTON — Immigration law reform, which almost cleared Congress in 1984 and is back on the legislative agenda, may be ambushed this year by a new foe--the drastic spending constraints Congress imposed on itself when it passed the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing law last December.
The immigration legislation now pending in the House and Senate is designed to end the fugitive status of many people now living illegally in the United States and, at the same time, curb the influx of aliens into the country.
Any such change in the law, however, would raise the cost not only of immigration control but also of government health and welfare programs. Tens of thousands of immigrants with the new legal status would become eligible for a wide array of state and local benefits, and the federal government would have to compensate the states and localities for the costs.
The $11.7 billion in federal spending cuts to take effect March 1 and far larger spending reductions scheduled for Oct. 1 under Gramm-Rudman are likely to leave little room for expensive new programs, many lawmakers and lobbyists involved with the immigration issue agree.
(Even though a federal court last week struck down its automatic spending cuts as unconstitutional, the deficit-reducing mechanism of Gramm-Rudman will continue to operate, subject to final congressional approval.)
"Before Gramm-Rudman, it (immigration legislation) was a questionable endeavor," said Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee. "With Gramm-Rudman, it makes the question marks even larger."
Although serious ideological differences long have fueled the debate, backers and critics alike say that Congress may seize on the cost issue as a new excuse to bury an immigration package that was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate last year and is awaiting action in a significantly different form in the Democratic-run House Judiciary Committee.
"In the end," predicted Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), the deficit-cutting law "may be the knife in the back of the immigration bill."
Barnaby Zall, general counsel of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, agreed: "Gramm-Rudman is sort of the bull in the china shop, and nobody's sure which way it's going to kick."
Not on Priorities List
Although the Administration has publicly endorsed the concept of an immigration overhaul, President Reagan's fiscal 1987 budget set aside no funds to pay for such a program and it was not listed among the President's major policy initiatives for the coming year.
Lawmakers have wrestled for several years with formulas for stanching the flow of illegal immigrants into the country and in 1984 nearly passed a reform package before a dispute over safeguards against discrimination erupted in the last days of the congressional session.
The concept was revived in the House last year by Mazzoli and the Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), and in the Senate by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.).
Although the two measures differ widely in detail, both approaches would offer eventual amnesty to many illegal workers already in the country, and both are designed to discourage new immigrants by slapping hefty fines and possible jail terms on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.
House negotiators are struggling with the thorny issue of whether an amnesty bill should have provisions allowing Western growers to import large numbers of foreign workers to pick crops.
Labor Shortage Disputed
The Senate added such a program to its version after farmers who rely on foreign workers at harvest time complained that giving large numbers of now-illegal immigrants legal status could create a labor shortage in the fields. Farm worker organizations and other groups contend, however, that the domestic labor supply for such work is adequate. They charge that the growers are merely trying to keep wages low.
The Senate completed action on Simpson's bill in September, and Mazzoli's subcommittee finished its hearings in November; but Rodino has yet to schedule a full committee session on the bill, and some members are grumbling about the delays.
"The budget cuts, Administration inattentiveness (and) lack of leadership within the House to bring it to the floor make prospects bleak right now," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a former chairman of the congressional Latino caucus.
One complication of the immigration debate is a lack of firm data on which to base cost projections.
For example, when Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) last year asked the Congressional Budget Office to predict the costs of an amnesty program, CBO estimates ranged from hundreds of millions of dollars a year to billions, depending on which of the numerous variables were considered.
"The estimates presented here are very uncertain," the report cautioned. " . . . Actual costs of the alternatives costed here could be well above or below CBO's estimates."