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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Putting the Immigration Reforms to Work

June 23, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Rarely if ever in U.S. history has any law so quickly produced the kind of massive impact triggered by the new immigration reform legislation.

Even though the penalty phase of the law has yet to begin, government figures show that the goal of curbing illegal immigration--believed by many to be impossible--can be achieved.

Within months after the law was passed, the illegal flow of workers into this country began to drop precipitously--down last month by as much as an estimated 60% from a year earlier.

The law's dramatic effect so far clearly indicates that this country can substantially slow the flood of illegal aliens, who for decades have poured across U.S. borders.

Immigration reform opponents have long maintained that even a law enforced by armed guards posted on a barrier like the Berlin Wall stretched along the entire southwestern U.S. border could not stop the flow of foreign workers who come here in a desperate search for jobs.

But supporters of immigration reform have argued that it could be done. Further, they have contended that if the enormous supply of cheap foreign labor was thereby reduced significantly, wages and benefits would go up enough to attract unemployed Americans to jobs that had been filled by easily exploited illegals.

After more than a decade of debate, Congress overcame the doubters and employers who want cheap labor by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Congress agreed to legalize millions of aliens, an unprecedented, sensible action. And it also said employers who knowingly hire illegals should face stiff penalties.

The law was passed in November, but the penalizing of employers who violate it does not begin until July 1. And initially, only warnings will be given, anyway.

Nevertheless, the flow of illegals across the border began to recede months ago, proving that foreigners will not come here in droves if employers don't offer them plenty of jobs.

No one knows all the reasons that the new immigration reform act has had such a powerful impact. But it is partly because of an amazing word-of-mouth grapevine that links this country to labor sources in Mexico.

Government experts in the United States and Mexico say that after the law passed, word spread abroad rapidly that customary employers of illegals in this country had stopped hiring them because of the prospect of hefty penalties.

The experts also say that large numbers of illegal aliens who normally return to Mexico and other countries during the Christmas holidays did not leave the United States last year because they feared that the new law would prevent them from returning to their jobs. That also helped reduce the number of illegals crossing the border while keeping them in the work force here.

Crossings Rise

In just the last three weeks, however, the number of illegal border crossers has begun to rise again. It seems that a new message is going around Mexico: Those first stories on the grapevine were exaggerated. U.S. employers will, after all, continue to offer jobs to illegals in violation of the new law and risk the penalties.

The conclusion for us, though, is that the law will work if it is rigorously enforced. That's especially important, because at least some employers apparently are not above using deceptive tactics to get Congress to kill or at least weaken the historic law.

As the flow of illegals into this country slowed, employers who routinely hired mostly illegals began to complain bitterly that, suddenly, their workers had almost disappeared.

Seemingly sincere cries of labor shortages came from garment manufacturers in Los Angeles, growers in the Northwest and parts of California, and owners of hotels and restaurants in many parts of the country--all traditional users of the cheap labor of illegals.

Orchestrated Plan

However, checks with government employment offices, university experts, unions and others raise serious suspicions about many of the claims of labor shortages, or the cause of those that actually exist. Some of the loud cries of shortages have the earmarks of an orchestrated plan to influence Congress.

Remember, manufacturers are allowed to keep workers who were on their payrolls as of Nov. 6, 1986. Employers are not required to prove their workers are here legally, just that they were working by that date.

So, users of illegal aliens run into problems only when they have to find replacement workers or people for new positions.

Yet, suddenly, photos started appearing on TV and in newspapers across the country showing garment plants with sewing machines that were idled by a lack of workers.

What happened to those illegals already working who legally could have stayed on the job? The suspicion is that at least some garment manufacturers manufactured a false appearance of a critical labor shortage to get "relief" from the law.

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