Aliens seeking jobs: stranded in policy vacuum

As the Cuban refugees begin to settle into the US economy, some of the attention they are drawing spills over onto a related problem: What can be done to control the number of illegal aliens taking jobs in the United States?

This question is being addressed by the Select Commission on Refugee and Immigration Policy, and until its final report is issued in December, the nation is in something of a policy vacuum.

The commission was authorized in October, 1978, after President Carter's initial proposals for immigration policy reform proved unpopular.

One of these would have allowed illegal aliens who have been in the US since 1970 to stay; but it would have treated those without such long continuous residence much differently. Other proposals also called for worker-eligibility cards for aliens, and would have imposed sanctions against employers who hired illegal aliens.

Hispanics felt that cards for aliens only were bound to be discriminatory. Moreover, it was felt that with sanctions, employers would simply shy away from hiring anyone remotely "illegal looking."

The select commission is currently considering a universal worker-eligibility card -- officials are careful not to say "national identity card" -- for any citizen or legal resident alien wishing to work. This proposal, which the commission's chairman, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, is said to favor, amounts to "forgeproofing" the Social Security Card and making it a genuine proof of work eligibility.

The Hispanic community, however, is no more enthusiastic about this proposal than it was about the earlier aliens-only worker cards.

"Employers are not going to ask any questions of white people," says Morris Baller, coordinator of litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Francisco. He sees any worker-identity card as bound to be discriminatory against Hispanics. He also feels such a card would be a short step away from the sort of national-identity card used in many European countries, which many Americans fear as an infringement of civil liberties.

A number of bills dealing with immigration and related issues are in the judiciary committees of the two houses of Congress, awaiting the select commission's report. (The two respective chairmen, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. of New Jersey, are both on the select commission.) Some of the bills include provisions for temporary entry of aliens for work purposes.

Meanwhile, 12 states have laws against employers' knowingly hiring illegal aliens, but they apparently are not being strictly enforced, at least not until there is some guidance on the federal level.

California's law, which provides for fines of $200 to $500 for employers who hire illegal aliens if their employment is found "detrimental" to the employment of citizens and legal resident aliens. It is not being enforced, and is under injunction pending a lawsuit.

The US Supreme Court, however, has upheld states' rights to pass laws regarding the hiring of illegal aliens, as long as they don't run counter to "the federal scheme" -- which has yet to be determined.

Under Connecticut law, the State Labor Department responds to reports of illegal aliens working by notifying the employer in question that it is against the law to have such unauthorized workers on the payroll. This is usually enough to get the employer to check out the workers' status and dismiss them if they are indeed working illegally, says a state official. But no employer has ever been taken to court under the law.

Employers are concerned, of course, that too-careful scrutiny of prospective employees could constitute a civil-rights violation. And state legislatures don't want to ruffle feathers in the business community.

Other states with laws against hiring illegal aliens are Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Virginia.

But if state control of illegal aliens working is almost nil, there is -- paradoxically -- a federal program to ensure that illegal aliens are being paid at least minimum wage and are otherwise receiving standard working conditions. The idea is that even people here illegally are accorded full protection of US laws, and, moreover, if employers can't get away with substandard wages for aliens, hiring them will be that much less attractive.

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