WASHINGTON — Farmers plagued by labor shortages should hire more Americans who are unemployed and on welfare, the Reagan Administration's immigration chief recommended Monday.
"This time of transition from an illegal agricultural work force to a legal one presents our nation with a unique opportunity to break both the welfare and illegal-alien dependency cycles," said Alan C. Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
He told reporters in a news conference that he has "conferred with federal officials" on the matter and is writing Western governors as well, to encourage more hiring of U.S. workers.
Nelson's comments came at a time of intensified criticism from immigrant advocates and agricultural groups, who say that INS regulations are discouraging many immigrants from applying for legal status, thereby preventing farmers from finding enough workers to harvest their crops.
Immigration legislation signed into law last Nov. 6 offers legal status to farm workers who can prove, through documentation such as pay stubs, that they worked in this country for 90 days in the year ended last May 1. In a separate program, immigrants who have lived in the country illegally since Jan. 1, 1982, also can apply for legal status. At the same time, however, the law forbids employers to hire aliens they know to be illegal.
While critics of the INS maintain that the agency should relax the documentation rules and expedite the legalization process, Nelson said there are plenty of jobless people--students and others--who could be recruited.
"There is no reason the growers in the West and across the country cannot have adequate labor," he said.
Barbara Buck of the Western Growers Assn. agreed that "we have to change the nature of our work force," but she said that it "is not going to change overnight. We see it as a long-term process."
She said that, for growers who have relied on experienced workers--many of whom were illegal immigrants from Mexico--it is too late to train new employees for crops that must be harvested between now and September, which she termed "peak harvest time."
Clark Biggs of the California Farm Bureau Federation said that INS "traditionally hasn't known a lot about farm workers" and added, "We don't take too kindly to their suggestions."
Nelson's comments follow a recent trip to Mexico, where he conferred with officials on a broad range of immigration issues.
He said the deaths this month of 18 people who were trying to enter the United States from Mexico "demonstrate the inhumanity of illegal immigration, and of the smugglers in particular." Nelson said that both countries "will work together to pursue more effective efforts" to prevent other such tragedies, but he offered no details.
Nelson reported that the number of aliens apprehended at the border in June rose by 24,000 over the previous month, but he denied that the increase signaled a failure of the revised immigration law.
"We believe the upturn most likely resulted from information which mistakenly led people to believe that the employer sanctions law will not be enforced," he said, adding that "claims of labor shortages in agriculture" may also have enticed more people to try to enter the country illegally.
Nelson pointed out that although the number of apprehensions in June exceeded that of May, the total of 93,790 was substantially lower than that of June, 1986, when 133,421 apprehensions were made.