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House Panel OKs Farm Worker and Immigration Bill

June 26, 1986|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee, breaking a bitter deadlock, on Wednesday approved a bill containing sweeping reforms to curb illegal immigration after adding a complex Democratic plan to ensure foreign labor for Western growers.

The bill, approved on a 25-10 vote, had stagnated in the panel for eight months, and key Democrats probably would have killed it there without adoption of the labor plan.

Their proposal, approved earlier in the evening on a 19-16 vote, was devised to head off a more sweeping program, such as one passed by the Senate last year that allows growers to import up to 350,000 temporary foreign guest workers at a time.

The bill would grant amnesty to many illegal aliens who entered this country before 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.

Unlike the Senate bill, the committee's version would bar growers from importing temporary labor. Supporters of the panel's plan contend that such guest workers depress farm wages and rob domestic workers of jobs.

More Generous Rules

But the program would establish substantially more generous amnesty rules for farm workers, allowing growers to retain a large part of their currently illegal work force and establishing a mechanism to replenish that labor supply if current workers leave in large numbers for non-agricultural jobs.

Under the plan, illegal farm workers would be granted so-called green cards--work permits--if they could prove that they had worked in the fields for 60 days between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986.

Critics contended that 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.

Need for Compromise

Supporters of the Democratic plan conceded that it was flawed and contained provisions opposed by many, 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 proposal would ultimately doom the bill.

Reflecting the frustration over the issue, 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."

Indeed, the list of authors of the Democratic proposal underscored not only the fragility of the arrangement but also its political complexity. The agreement brought together Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), a staunch advocate of farm labor causes who has fought hard to block reform legislation in the past, and Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), who had previously pushed for a wide-open guest worker program. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) mediated the negotiations.

Berman said part of the agreement that led to Wednesday's vote was a promise by Democratic leaders in the House that they would block any attempt by advocates of a more expansive labor program to push their cause on the House floor.

However, immigration legislation still faces several major hurdles. Both Republicans and Democrats have signaled significant reservations about various parts of the bill.

And any bill ultimately passed by the House would have to be reconciled in a conference committee with the Senate version, which contains differing 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.

Endorsement of Bill

The Reagan Administration has endorsed the Senate bill and its guest worker package but has taken no stand on the House Democratic alternative.

Berman said that Western growers, initially insistent on a guest worker plan, had embraced his program. But Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), who championed grower causes in the committee, resisted the plan.

Backers said that the plan would provide legal protections for farm workers and prevent their exploitation. But critics complained that it would grant special privileges to farm workers that were denied to illegal aliens not working in the fields.

Disparity in Rights

"You have given these people in this program greater rights than those who apply for the (non-agricultural) legalization program," Lungren contended.

Not only would amnesty be easier for farmer workers to obtain than it would be for other illegal aliens, but farm workers would gain immediate access to welfare benefits while other aliens receiving amnesty would be barred from welfare eligibility for five years, critics pointed out.

Federal authorities estimate that only about 15% of illegal aliens in the country work in agriculture.

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