Hispanic political pressure stops immigration reform in Congress

Hispanics have doubled their representation in Congress and become a favorite object of presidential wooing. Now they have proved their new political strength , by stopping cold an advancing immigration reform bill.

Just two weeks before it was to go to the House Rules Committee, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts announced he would not send it to the floor because he had information that the President would veto it to win points among Hispanics.

In the flurry of charges and countercharges since, one fact emerges. The Hispanics on Capitol Hill and the Hispanic lobbying groups bitterly opposed the bill, and lawmakers listened.

''Maybe the speaker left the door open, but it's fairly evident to us that the bill will not come up,'' says Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, a freshman. He and three other Hispanics met with Mr. O'Neill a week ago to urge that the bill be weakened. The speaker decided to go even further and keep it off the floor altogether.

The heart of the Hispanic opposition is that the legislation, which has already passed the Senate, calls for penalizing employers who hire illegal foreign workers. Those ''employer sanctions'' would spark widespread discrimination against anyone who looked or sounded foreign, charge Hispanic opponents. That provision ''sank this bill,'' according to Representative Richardson.

What is apparently being lost with the bill is the work of a bipartisan commission dating back to the Carter administration, as well as of Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, sponsors of the reform.

''I am disappointed,'' says Senator Simpson, who has been working on the immigration problem almost since he arrived in Congress six years ago. The bill moved ''through the tangled clutches of racism, the Statue of Liberty, emotion, and fear,'' he says, but was ''dashed on the rocks of partisanship.''

Party politics was the ''farthest thing from my mind,'' says Simpson, who vows he's going to try to convince House Speaker O'Neill of that ''if I have to go up and sit on his front porch in Boston.''

Simpson says the Reagan administration, which has announced it supports the Senate version of the reform, opposes only the $11 billion in education and social service aid included in the House bill. And he credits the Hispanic groups for using their powers to defeat it.

''They do not want immigration reform,'' he charges. ''They want the status quo. All these months and months, the only thing they ever said (they would accept) was 'increased targeted enforcement.' ''

The Hispanics liked the provision to grant legal status to many illegal aliens already in the United States, Simpson says, but ''I said, 'That only comes under one circumstance: employer sanctions.' ''

''It will never go away,'' he says of the problem of illegal immigration.''It will get worse, and somewhere along the line it'll get ugly.''

Hispanic leaders note that their success in stopping the Simpson-Mazzoli bill has a down side.

''I don't know how much of a victory it is,'' says Arnold Torres, Washington director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. ''I think the impression is that the (congressional) Hispanic Caucus and all Hispanic people are against immigration reform. We're not.''

Senator Simpson ''keeps thinking that immigration reform is only (employer) sanctions,'' Mr. Torres says. ''That's exactly what the problem has always been with the bill.''

Instead, he would propose more ''agressive enforcement of labor laws,'' such as minimum wage and health standards, since employers of illegal workers often neglect legal requirements. He also proposes stricter border control.

''We've got to curb the illegal flow of workers into this country,'' says Congressman Richardson. He says that the Hispanics themselves now have a responsibility to offer some reforms.

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