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Farm Workers Key to Immigration Debate

May 21, 1986|Harry Bernstein

For the first time, there seems to be a real possibility that Congress will, at last, enact an immigration reform law that will dramatically reduce--if not stop--the ever-increasing flow of foreign workers who, desperate for any kind of income, illegally slip into this country, depressing wages and taking jobs away from American citizens and other workers who are here legally.

But it is still only a possibility. To enhance its prospects, hectic negotiations are going on behind closed doors in Washington to reconcile serious remaining differences between powerful forces that could kill the urgently needed legislation when it comes up for congressional action in the second week of June. (As an indication of the size of the problem, it has been estimated that more illegal aliens enter the United States each year than enter all of the other countries of the world combined.)

One of the most difficult problems standing in the way of immigration reform is a provision in the Senate-approved plan to create a "guest worker" program reminiscent of the discredited, now-defunct "bracero" program that, in effect, gave growers a government-approved, captive foreign work force.

Growers, particularly in the Southwest, rely heavily on illegal aliens to perform low-paying, difficult farm labor jobs. Many U.S. workers now don't want the farm jobs because the hard work usually provides them with below-poverty-level incomes.

Although farm workers make up only an estimated 10% to 15% of the millions of illegals now in the United States, growers seem to have enough political clout to be able to block passage of the law if they don't get something like a new bracero program.

Most growers don't want to lose that source of cheap labor. And they know that if immigration reform passes without some kind of bracero program, they, like other employers, face substantial fines if they continue to use illegal aliens.

But the bracero, or "guest worker" plan, which has grower support, is opposed by the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), who has worked for years to win passage of immigration reform. It is also opposed by organized labor. They argue that if growers and other employers would just pay workers decent wages, they could attract enough workers from the ranks of the millions of unemployed legal residents of this country to meet all of their employment needs.

So a compromise proposal is in the works. Some observers fear that the proposal will weaken the chance of passing immigration reform. But the compromise seems to make so much sense that it might turn out to be the key to passage of the measure.

Pushing hardest for the compromise are two California Democrats, Reps. Howard L. Berman of Panorama City and Leon E. Panetta of Monterey, and Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). They are seeking a compromise that they hope will have the approval of both growers and unions. Since Panetta is usually on the side of growers and Berman has substantial labor backing, their effort could succeed.

The heart of the compromise is to give growers the right to use their present work force, including illegal aliens who can prove at least a relatively brief, recent history of work in agriculture.

If they are "legalized," workers who object to the wages and conditions of farm jobs could not be shipped back to their native countries. They could move out of agriculture to seek other jobs in urban areas.

Under the bracero plan, if workers feel abused by one grower, they can only move to another job in agriculture or be sent back to their native countries.

Berman argues that if legalized farm workers are treated well, they will not move on to the cities. But if they do, better farm wages and conditions will attract an adequate supply of U.S. domestic workers anyway.

Other parts of the immigration reform measure now before Congress would allow non-farm illegal aliens to remain here legally if they can show that they have established a period of residence in this country going back at least until 1982. This "amnesty" idea is based on the contention that it would be morally wrong and physically almost impossible to deport the millions of illegal aliens who have developed roots in this country.

But special treatment would be accorded to farm workers, because growers say the loss of their workers here illegally would devastate the agricultural economy. That means that illegal aliens now working in the fields, even those who have been here for only a relatively short time, could remain here legally.

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