WASHINGTON — Sweeping reforms to curb illegal immigration cleared a major legislative hurdle Wednesday night as the House Judiciary Committee broke a bitter deadlock and agreed to a complex Democratic plan to ensure Western growers of a continued supply of foreign labor.
The farm worker program was approved on a 19-16 vote, and the full bill was then approved by a 25-10 margin.
The bill had stagnated in the panel for eight months, and Democrats probably would have killed it there if their labor plan had not been approved.
The proposal approved Wednesday is designed to head off passage of a more sweeping program such as one approved by the Senate last year that allows growers to import up to 350,000 temporary foreign guest workers at a time.
The House immigration bill would grant amnesty to many illegal aliens who entered this country prior to 1982 but would seek to deter new arrivals by imposing sanctions on employers who hire them. Growers, who have traditionally relied on a large supply of illegal labor at harvest time, have argued that crops would rot on the ground if the bill were passed without special provisions regarding agricultural workers.
Under the Democratic plan, growers would not be entitled to import temporary workers--supporters of the plan contend that imported workers depress farm wages and rob domestic workers of jobs. But the program would establish substantially more generous amnesty rules for farm workers, allowing growers to retain a large part of their presently illegal work force.
Critics contended the proposal sets up an unfair two-tier approach to amnesty that gives preference to farm workers and could ultimately undercut the goal of ending a flood of job-seeking illegal immigrants into this country.
Highlighting a deep ideological split over the farm worker question, supporters of the Democratic plan admitted that it was flawed and contained provisions many found distasteful, but they warned that the entire bill would die without such a compromise. Backers of a guest worker plan, on the other hand, contended that the Democratic plan was a "killer amendment" that would ultimately doom the bill.
Reflecting frustration over the politically charged, divisive atmosphere, Rep. Larry Smith (D-Fla.) said that panel members found themselves in a worse position than being between a rock and a hard place. "The old adage that says we're between a dog and a convenience would seem to be more appropriate," Smith told his colleagues. "I don't think anybody should hold it against us for things we do in this bill which are disgraceful."
In addition to endorsing the Democratic farm worker plan, the committee action virtually assured that Democratic leaders would block any attempt by advocates of the more expansive labor program to push their cause on the House floor.
Faces More Hurdles
However, immigration legislation still faces several major hurdles. Both Republicans and Democrats have signaled significant reservations over various parts of the legislation. And any bill ultimately passed by the House would have to be reconciled in a conference committee with the Senate version, which contains provisions such as the guest worker program. Disagreement over guest worker provisions helped to kill a reform package in a conference committee two years ago.