WASHINGTON — The latest congressional drive to overhaul immigration laws and stem the flood of illegal aliens into the country ended abruptly Friday when the House rejected a key Democratic plan affecting the hiring of foreign farm workers.
When asked if the bill was dead after the 202-180 vote, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), the chief sponsor, snapped: "So far as I'm concerned, it is."
The vote closes another chapter in a so-far futile reform drive that began in the early 1970s. Every Congress since then has considered plans to crack down on illegal immigration but has been stymied by a complex thicket of competing economic, legal and civil liberties questions.
A Year of Haggling
The latest breakdown triggered a wave of finger-pointing and dismay from both Republicans and Democratic lawmakers who spent more than a year haggling over formulas that, like many past efforts, would offer amnesty to many undocumented aliens in the country but seek to deter new illegal entries by imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire them.
Rodino and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), author of a reform package that passed the Senate a year ago, blamed the setback on demands by powerful Western growers that their traditional access to a supply of cheap, foreign-born labor not be disrupted by reforms.
"We have defaulted, we have deferred, we have relegated our legislative power away to a tough, tough bunch of guys who really didn't give a crap about immigration reform, whose sole interest is that the people be in the fields on the date when the figs are ready, the peaches, the grapes--and everything else is just lip service," Simpson lamented.
The vote was on a provision containing a Democratic plan granting many illegal aliens permanent resident status if they could prove they had worked in the fields for as little as 60 days. The provision would have attached the plan to the immigration reform bill, reported the bill to floor and prevented any other amendments to the bill.
The plan was designed to assure growers that they would not be short of workers at harvest time. But opponents, led by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), argued that the measure was unfair because it effectively established a privileged class of illegal aliens who could qualify for eventual American citizenship on the basis of a few months' work in the fields.
Lungren's alternate plan, which Democrats refused to allow to come to the floor for a vote, would have allowed growers to import up to 350,000 temporary foreign guest workers at a time. Technically, the legislation remained alive on the House calendar but Rodino, who controls the bill, insisted there was no practical way to resolve differences over the farm worker question as Congress rushes to clear its calendar in the next few weeks and adjourn for the year.
Meese Raps Democrats
However, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III urged Rodino to make another attempt and blamed Democratic leaders for precipitating the impasse by refusing to let Lungren's plan even come to the floor for consideration.
"Immigration reform is too important to die because of a ham-handed effort to force an unpopular position upon a majority of House members," Meese said.
Past attempts at reform have been torpedoed by political and ideological disputes over the propriety of offering amnesty to illegal aliens or imposing sanctions on employers. However, liberals and conservatives gradually came to accept the necessity of both approaches.
Sneaking Across Borders
Current law makes it illegal for foreigners to sneak across American borders, but not illegal for American employers to hire them. The bill, approved in Rodino's committee, threatened U.S. employers with fines or prison terms if they hired undocumented workers, thus eliminating the economic magnet that last year lured an estimated 1.2 million people to enter this country illegally. The bill also made aliens not working in agriculture eligible for amnesty only if they had entered the country before 1982.
Growers say such sanctions would slash the pool of available farmhands and leave perishable fruits and vegetables rotting on the ground at harvest time. But backers of sanctions say the supply of legal domestic labor is sufficient to get crops picked and contend that growers simply want to hold costs down by ensuring themselves of a cheap supply of foreign-born labor.
Arguing in debate to substitute his plan for the Democratic proposal, Lungren said aliens should be forced to demonstrate "a long-term commitment" to living in the United States before being allowed to stay here. "Do you think 60 days in this country is sufficient to give citizenship?" he asked colleagues.
Later, he told reporters that Democratic leaders had blocked a vote on his plan because they knew he would win. Lungren noted that, two years ago, the House passed an immigration reform package that included a guest worker program similar to the one he had proposed. That bill eventually died in a House-Senate conference committee.
Rodino, however, disagreed. Although acknowledging flaws in the Democratic proposal, he described it as a "delicately put together compromise that was the only glue" that could preserve the package to send it a conference with Senate negotiators.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the sponsors of the Democratic plan, said its defeat had blown "the last chance for humane, decent immigration reform."