Washington — Thousands of US businesses that have been hiring illegal aliens are getting the message that if they plan to continue this practice in coming years, they may be doing so at their own risk. The possible risk is being convicted of a crime, paying a fine, or even facing a jail sentence.
That scenario seems unlikely this year, given the haste of lawmakers to get back to their home districts for the election campaign.
But for that portion of the business community knowingly hiring illegal aliens -- numbering millions of workers by some estimates -- the outlook for 1981 and beyond is clear.A small but determined group of lawmakers is eager to enact a legislative "anti-alien" restraint on hiring as soon as possible, possibly by next year or 1982.
The continuation of high unemployment well into 1981, as forecast by administration economists, is expected to add impetus to that drive.Moreover, there is some evidence here that a number of political candidates may be discovering a strong "anti-alien" and "anti-refugee" mood on the part of the public, which they can use in their campaigns.
Surveys made for presidential contender Ronald Reagan, for example, found 10 percent of the voters disapproving US resettlement policies regarding Cuban, Vietnamese, and Haitian refugees.
At the center of the current "anti-alien" drive is a proposed legislative amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Efficiency Act of 1980, a major immigration reform proposal now before Congress.The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D) of Kentucky, would, in effect, add up to a severe restraint on thousands of companies that knowingly employ illegal aliens. Proponents are hoping for a vote on the issue this week.
No matter what -- if anything -- happens regarding a floor vote this week, however, the issue is expected to be raised again early next year, says Barnaby Zall, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
The organization, which grew partly out of the environmental movement of the 1970s, maintains that illegal immigrants constitute a new "slave class" in the United States which is unfairly taking jobs from American citizens.
Too often, Mr. Zall contends, they are able to do so because of "complicity" from business groups eager to hire "docile employees" who will not question substandard safety or pay considerations.
The anti-alien proposal by Senator Huddleston is aimed squarely at the business community. Under the plan, an employer could not knowingly hire an illegal immigrant.
Immigration laws now say that an illegal alien cannot legally work -- that is , accept employment. That puts the issue of legality and criminal sanctions on the back of the alien. But the employer -- who may deliberately seek out an alien -- is able to escape through oversight.
The Huddleston proposal is based on a similar provision in the US Farm Labor Contractor's Registration Act, which applies to farm labor situations. Under that act, which was revised in 1974, a contractor violating the law can be subject to a $10,000 fine and a three-year jail sentence.
Eleven states and Puerto Rico have similar laws. But no such provision applies at the national level to nonfarm work.
The prohibition on farm labor contracting has already led to a number of arrests. During fiscal year 1978, for example, violators paid out some $529,000 in fines.
The House passed two restrictive laws on hiring of illegal aliens in the early to mid-1970s. Both were scuttled in the Senate.
The Carter administration also introduced a somewhat similar bill in the Senate in 1977. That also failed to go anywhere.
According to Senate sources close to the issue, opposition to an anti-alien statute is particularly strong from a hodge-podge coalition representing business groups, Hispanic organizations, and some social welfare agencies. Because of the clout of this combined lobby, it is assumed here that proponents of the Huddleston amendment will have a tough uphill battle.
A Roper poll taken in July showed 91 percent of all Americans favoring tougher legal controls on illegal aliens.