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Immigrant Past and Present

July 06, 1986

It is heartening to note, on the centennial anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, progress toward a national consensus on immigration reform. The rededication of the monument to this nation's immigrant past is worth celebrating, but is also a sobering reminder that we have yet to craft a humane immigration policy attuned to the modern world.

Congress has failed to enact immigration reform for six years now. Recently the prospect looked no better for 1986, but a compromise on agricultural workers has renewed hope. The proposal was recently added to the immigration bill written by Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.).

Western farmers have been among the strongest opponents of immigration reform because most proposals include provisions that would prohibit the employment of illegal immigrants. Farmers argue that fruits and vegetables in states like California can't be harvested without migrant workers from Mexico who are willing to take the low-paying field jobs that U.S. citizens shun. The compromise is between two California congressmen who have taken opposite sides on the issue of foreign workers, Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City) and Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley).

The Berman-Panetta plan in effect would call the farmers' bluff by permitting them to keep their valued Mexican workers if they are willing to legalize them. Under the plan, any immigrant worker who had been in the United States for 60 days, working in agriculture, would be eligible for legalization under the immigration bill's amnesty provisions. Thus farmers could keep using the same seasonal workers whom they had employed in the past. But, by relieving them of the onus of illegality, the plan also would give the workers the freedom to seek employment elsewhere if the farmer for whom they worked did not pay well or treated them badly.

There is a theoretical logic to this farm-labor proposal, but there are political hazards to be faced before the compromise becomes law. The Senate's immigration bill already includes an amendment for 350,000 guest workers, and many farmers prefer this bracero- style program. The more restrictionist legislators--like Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), author of the Senate immigration bill--will object to any plan that would rapidly legalize as many workers as the House compromise would.

Still, the Berman-Panetta proposal will be useful if it helps move the House immigration bill--which is far more generous and humane than Simpson's restrictionist version--closer to enactment. Rodino proposes to legalize all illegals here by 1982; his date is more generous than Simpson's 1980. The House plan to reimburse local governments for 100% of the cost of newly legalized residents is better than Simpson's ceiling of $1.8 billion. Both bills include employer sanctions, but Rodino's includes more protections to discourage employers from discriminating against Latinos, Asian-Americans and other citizens who look or sound "foreign."

The Rodino bill is not perfect. Like Simpson's proposal, it would not reorganize the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which remains one of the most poorly run bureaucracies in the federal government. INS could botch up even the best-written new immigration law.

And Rodino, like Simpson, does not give enough attention to the unique relationship between the United States and Mexico, and the long history of migration between the two countries. By lumping Mexico in with other nations that send immigrants here, both bills would complicate a relationship that has benefited both nations and that is especially important now that Mexico is facing serious economic problems.

One thing that makes the Berman-Panetta plan attractive is that it takes the historic U.S.-Mexican relationship into account. The House should go even further in that direction by giving Mexico a larger quota of visas than countries that are farther away. The Rodino bill should also require the commissions that it would create to study the effects of immigration reform to give special attention to the effect on Mexico. Immigration reform that ignores the unique situation on our southern border will not be very effective.

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