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Immigration Law May Bring Real Changes

October 22, 1986|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Rarely has politics brought together such strange bedfellows as were united on either side of the furious battle over the nation's immigration laws--a fight that culminated last week in congressional approval of sweeping reform.

On one side were those demanding legislation to try to halt an increasing tide of illegal immigration. That group included liberals, almost all unions and progressive politicians such as Reps. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles) and Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.). This faction is distressed by the fact that poverty-stricken illegal aliens, driven by their own urgent needs, are often successfully competing against Mexican-Americans, blacks, poor whites and teen-agers for usually low-paying jobs.

Also backing immigration reform were many employers who don't want to hire illegal aliens and found it difficult, if not impossible, to compete with firms using this cheap source of labor.

To the consternation of many pro-immigration reform groups, they were joined by outright racists who hate all nonwhites and "superpatriots" who fear the "invasion" of all foreigners, legal or illegal.

Arrayed against that odd assemblage in the campaign to block reform was an equally unusual combination of usually antagonistic individuals and organizations. These included such liberal politicians as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a wide variety of liberal and ultra-liberal organizations, church leaders, civil libertarians and others who said they feared that the reforms would vastly increase discrimination against anyone with brown skin.

And joining that assortment of left-leaning anti-reformists were greedy employers anxious to hold onto the labor of illegals who work cheaply and hard because they fear deportation to even worse poverty in their native countries.

But the efforts of those odd couplings may well produce at least two dramatic, urgently needed social and economic changes for millions of workers and may substantially help honest employers.

First, if penalties against companies that knowingly hire illegal aliens significantly reduce the supply of illegal workers, it could mean, in time, millions of job openings for legal workers who cannot or will not compete with those who are desperate for jobs of any kind, at any price.

In almost all cases, it is patently false to argue that workers here legally cannot be found to fill jobs held by illegal aliens. Millions of those same kinds of jobs are already filled by legal residents in many parts of the country where illegals are not usually found. It can only be argued that it is hard to find legal workers for dirty, unsafe, inefficient jobs that don't pay living wages--hardly a sound argument against immigration reform.

A conversation overheard the other day in a restaurant in Julian, near San Diego, helped drive home this point once again: A pleasant, well-groomed white man of about 60 told his friends in a loud voice that he is doing some construction work, needs some common laborers and therefore "I'm going to hire some wetbacks (illegal aliens) for about $15 a day. Those people," he said, "will work their little hearts out for you all day long for that money."

Second, under terms of one of the most generous immigration programs ever enacted in this nation's history, millions of workers who came here before 1982 can come out of hiding at last, no longer frightened by the sight of law enforcement officers, no longer worried over deportation and no longer unprotected by U.S. laws.

To help those aliens not eligible for legalization, the United States and other countries should now provide substantial economic aid to try to increase jobs in the nations whose citizens now come here in such huge numbers seeking work.

Unfortunately, what help they now get comes in the form of jobs in this country. And that cost is borne primarily by poor U.S. workers who are either displaced from jobs by illegal aliens or find their wages held down by illegals willing to work for wages far less than what is needed to maintain a decent living by U.S. standards.

In Mexico, the minimum wage was hiked 21.2% on Tuesday to $3.15 a day . The U.S. minimum is higher: $3.35 an hour . It is easy to see why Mexican workers are attracted to jobs here.

Third, employers who believe in treating workers fairly or who are forced to provide fair treatment under union contracts may now feel less pressure from competitors who have for years relied on low-wage illegal aliens because there had been no law against employers hiring them, even though the workers themselves violated immigration laws.

It will take time to implement the new law, and there could be abuses by insensitive immigration officials and others. But if it works, and certainly it can, the immigration reform law could dramatically curb, if not end, more than a century of widespread, exploitative reliance on cheap foreign labor by employers both in America's cities and in agriculture.

New Hope for the UFW

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