WASHINGTON — In a major boost for immigration legislation, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), the influential chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he will accelerate action on the bill after being reassured by President Reagan that the White House strongly backs the concept.
"The President said: 'I'm for it,' " Rodino said after a 15-minute White House meeting with Reagan, top Cabinet officials and other lawmakers involved in the immigration issue. "He said: 'Everything is go.' "
The Senate last year passed a sweeping bill that would have offered amnesty to many illegal aliens already in this country while seeking to deter job-seeking illegal arrivals by threatening employers who knowingly hire them with fines and possible jail terms.
But Rodino, who sponsored a different version of the politically sensitive measure in the House, had balked at moving ahead with its consideration because he apparently sensed that Reagan was giving it only lukewarm support.
After Tuesday's session, however, Rodino said he is satisfied that Reagan had "committed himself" to working for passage of the legislation, and Rodino said he will schedule committee action on the bill for sometime after Easter.
A White House official said that the meeting, arranged at Rodino's request, was designed "to reassure Rodino that this is a key priority." To underscore that commitment, Reagan was flanked at the session by Donald T. Regan, his chief of staff, as well as by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and James C. Miller III, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Also in attendance were Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), sponsor of the Senate immigration bill, Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), a co-sponsor of the House bill, and two Judiciary Committee Republicans, Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York and Californian Dan Lungren of Long Beach.
Lungren said after the meeting that "three or four times" during the session Reagan stressed his support for an immigration package. At one point, he recalled, Simpson told Rodino that his support was vital too, and Reagan chimed in with a smile: "If what you're saying is that everybody is on board and you're just looking at the two of us (Reagan and Rodino), as far as I'm concerned, you've got me."
Large Costs Involved
While Reagan, Rodino and the others avoided discussing the thorny differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, Lungren said that the President indicated that he would not object to the large costs involved in implementing a program to give legal status to aliens already in the country, estimated by some experts to run as high as $1 billion a year for several years.
"There will be some costs involved, but as far as I'm concerned, the long-term costs to our country will be less if we pass a bill and get immigration under control," Lungren quoted the President as saying.
Although the meeting eliminated one major impediment to action on the legislation, lawmakers in both the House and Senate remain deeply divided over key elements of the legislation and a final compromise is by no means certain.
The most serious differences involve demands by growers, primarily in the West, that they be allowed to import large numbers of low-cost foreign workers to pick crops and the insistence of California, Texas and other states with large illegal alien populations that they be fully reimbursed by the federal government for increased burdens placed on state health and welfare programs if legal status is granted.
'Number of Hurdles'
"I still think that there are a number of hurdles," said California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a former farm labor lawyer who is leading the fight against creation of a large-scale guest worker program.
The White House official, who asked not to be identified, said Reagan was pressing for final congressional action before summer to avoid a conflict with this fall's congressional elections. "The window will close pretty fast after that," he said.
But another Administration official conceded that the combination of the election and a legislative calendar crowded with issues that the Administration has targeted as high-priority items--including aid for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua, the budget and tax reform--is likely to foreclose any real action on immigration reform this year.
"It's not that we don't want it," he said. "It's a question of the legislative agenda up on the Hill. The plate is very full. I don't know if it's going to make it or not."
Times staff writer Eleanor Clift contributed to this report.