WASHINGTON — Three Reagan Administration Cabinet members, warning that further delay could make it impossible to pass sweeping immigration legislation this year, urged House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) Friday to allow his committee to begin putting the bill together next week, as scheduled.
The plea was made in a letter to Rodino as key negotiators continued to try to build support for a compromise on a program allowing foreign workers into Western states to harvest perishable crops. The program has been the major impediment to committee action on the bill.
"We respectfully request that you do whatever you can to assure that the House, Senate and the Administration will have an adequate opportunity to resolve whatever differences there may be," Labor Secretary William E. Brock III, Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III wrote in the letter.
"Only if movement occurs in the short time remaining to us will the President be able to sign immigration reform legislation by the fall," they added.
The bill, a version of which was passed by the Senate last year, aims to curb the flow of illegal aliens across U.S. borders by imposing stiff penalties on those who knowingly hire them. It would also establish a program of legalizing millions of those who are already working in this country.
Although the committee is scheduled to begin work next week, Rodino has "a pretty bad track record as far as scheduling and backing out," said Patrick Burns, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which staunchly backs overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
The latest in a series of delays occurred last month, when negotiators asked for additional time to work out a compromise between organized labor and farmers on the key stumbling block: how to deal with the unpredictable labor needs of growers of perishable crops, most of which are grown in the West. Farmers say that existing programs are not flexible enough to meet their needs and force them to turn to illegal aliens at harvest time.
The three major figures in the talks have been two Californians--Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a staunch advocate of farm workers' rights, and Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), who has defended agricultural interests in his district and elsewhere--and a New York Democrat, Rep. Charles E. Schumer.
Their long negotiations have produced what an aide to Berman said is a "conceptual agreement" that would grant legal status to workers who could prove that they had been employed in U.S. agriculture for at least 20 days within the previous year. However, those workers would not be required to remain with their previous employers and would be free to seek better wages and working conditions elsewhere.
Supporters of the agreement say that it would provide enough labor to meet agricultural needs without making those workers vulnerable to mistreatment. However, Burns insisted that it would simply open a "golden door," allowing floods of foreign workers to compete for jobs with U.S. citizens and strain the budgets of cities and states that must provide services to them.
Greg Leo, an official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the Administration has not yet seen in writing the specifics of such an arrangement and therefore has not decided whether to support it.
But it would appear to violate at least one of the basic conditions that the Administration has set for any agricultural labor program because it apparently would not require the foreign workers to remain in farm work.