Washington — Sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants -- that's the issue in a 50-year battle that has finally reached the Senate floor.
''Illegals'' in the United States are estimated at 3 million to 6 million, with more crossing the porous boundaries every night. Studies in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, and a prestigious report by a special bipartisan ''Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy,'' declare the same thing: Illegal immigrants aren't likely to stop coming to the US unless the cash incentive for their coming is reduced. If they get jobs they will come.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill (Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky) finally reached the Senate floor with a key provision to penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. It presents a stark challenge to politicians, businessmen, and American tradition. The powerful US Chamber of Commerce opposes it; many social activists favor it. Both presented arguments as the Senate faced a vote.
In its implications, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is far-reaching. If an employer is to be penalized for hiring an illegal immigrant, he must have some sure-fire way of telling if the immigrant is here legally -- an identification system. This introduces a new feature in American life, it is argued, and almost automatically requires, as a supplement, some form of amnesty for illegal aliens who have long lived here.
Millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, have passed through American borders. The US has been the most generous recipient of immigrants in the world and still is. What is needed then, the reasoning goes, is an amnesty to wipe the slate clean for illegals who have lived in America, found jobs, set up families, and still fear reproach, discovery, and exploitation. Embracing this idea and the identification system, the current bill, introduced last March, carries a heavy cargo of potential social change.
Rival views are strongly held. The US Chamber of Commerce argues that any secure verification system would be ''too burdensome'' for private businessmen, who would have the responsibility of checking potential employee's documents. It ought to be the government's duty, not the employer's, to see that illegals do not enter, argues the chamber. Some other business groups take a neutral or more favorable attitude toward the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. The National Association of Manufacturers and some local chambers of commerce in Texas and California, for example, support it.
Sharp criticism of the bill comes from civil libertarian groups who see in the identification-card system a type of regimentation reminiscent of authoritarian societies.
Another issue is how many legal immigrants to admit in view of the country's current 9.8 percent unemployment rate. America is moving away from its historic hospitality to immigrants, but doing it reluctantly. Congress has heretofore made special provision for ''refugees'' who face persecution at home. Now Sen. Walter Huddleston (D) of Kentucky wants to keep the the door open for refugees, but to charge their numbers against the ordinary immigrant quotas from particular countries. This would effectively reduce the approximately 425,000 annual legal admissions by an estimated 100,000.
Questions rise in Washington whether Congress has the will at present to tackle the difficult immigration issue, although citizens overwhelmingly favor tighter control of the borders. Appropriations for the border guard have been reduced in the general economizing drive in Washington. Long sections of the US-Mexico border are sparcely guarded.
Backing the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, Theodore M. Hesburgh, former chairman of the blue-ribbon US Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, notes that ''a generous and fair legalization and a strict employer sanctions program were both overwhelmingly favored by the select commission in its final report to the President and Congress last year (on March 1, 1981).'' Dr. Hesburgh heads a new nonpartisan committee trying to implement the original report, one of its members is former President Gerald R. Ford, and it includes prominent Democrats.
''The need for a rational, just, humane, and race-free immigration and refugee policy is clear,'' he says, ''and the time for action is at hand.''