WASHINGTON — A Texas coalition of government, business and immigrant interest groups, predicting economic and social disaster under the new immigration law, Wednesday called for a delay in implementing the landmark legislation unless massive regulatory changes are made.
"Nobody's ready" to implement the law, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower declared in proposing 28 changes to make it easier for illegal immigrants to qualify for legal status. If the changes are not adopted, the law's provisions should be delayed, Hightower told a news conference on Capitol Hill, where he and other Texans had come to lobby for the changes.
The coalition expressed its concern as part of the period for public comment on the regulations, which will continue until the law goes into effect on May 5.
Hightower, an outspoken Democrat who has gained a national reputation for plain speaking and pointed humor, said: "Trying to clean up the regulatory mess that our federal immigration agency has created is about like drawing shovel duty at a feedlot, but we have no choices except to come here and start shoveling this stuff."
His state's economy would be devastated, Hightower said, if the immigration law disrupts the agriculture industry. The state government already faces a $6-billion budget deficit, he said, adding that welfare and social service agencies have undergone "drastic reductions in funding."
Among the Texans joining Hightower at the news conference were Willie Velasquez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, who called the law unworkable in its present state.
The Texans' 18-member coalition mirrors the national discontent of many immigrant interest groups that accuse the Immigration and Naturalization Service of violating the spirit of the law by proposing regulations that would restrict the number of illegal immigrants who qualify for legal status.
To date, most of the criticism of the INS plan has centered on provisions that would grant legal status to an expected 3.9 million people in the general, non-farm population. However, the Texans focused heavily on farm workers, asserting that agriculture provides 22% of the jobs in the state, which is second only to California in farm cash receipts. The INS expects 100,000 farm workers to seek legal status.
Eligible After 90 Days
Under the legislation, illegal immigrants may apply for legal status if they were employed in agriculture for at least 90 days during the year ending last May.
The farm worker provision appears to be more liberal than that governing legalization of the general population, which requires people to have lived in the country continuously since before January, 1981.
However, Hightower said, the law's provisions on legal status for agriculture workers are so narrowly written that 90% of the illegal employees in his state will be unable to qualify for the amnesty. For example, he said, many workers will be left out because the INS does not define ranch hands and poultry workers as "field workers."
The INS has said that anyone who left and re-entered the country since Nov. 6, when the law was signed, will be deported. However, deported farm workers still could be eligible for legalization if they apply from their country of origin.
In their recommendations to the INS, coalition members said that such people would be at a disadvantage because they would not have direct access to their employment records and that their deportation would harm employers' businesses.
The coalition urged the INS to suspend deportation of such workers and to allow those already expelled to re-enter the country.
The coalition called "excessive" the INS' proposed legalization fee of $185 per person.
INS officials rejected the coalition's assertions that the law would have disastrous consequences on the Texas economy but said that the group's proposals will be considered, along with other comments on the proposed regulations.
As for delaying implementation of the law, spokesman Verne Jervis said: "We have not given any thought to that, and I have no sense that there is a great demand for it. The concern is that we be ready by May 5."