San Francisco — Case by case, illegal immigration has a harmless face. Ramon picks oranges for $3.35 an hour and laughs at the suggestion that he's taking a job from an American citizen. He's making more here than at home in Mexico, and his employer is able to keep his prices down.
It seems like a good thing for everybody.
But multiply Ramon by several million others like him, add in projections of population growth in underdeveloped nations, and the problem takes on a different proportion.
''This can gather momentum, and stopping demographic momentum is like trying to stop a supertanker. It has to start stopping several hours before it intends to stop,'' explains Michael Teitelbaum, program officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a respected authority on immigration.
There are no new ideas for stopping this demographic supertanker, immigration experts say. Long years of debate have produced a broad range of solutions. Any of them could slow illegal immigration if they could just be implemented.
The Simpson-Mazzoli bill, a broad-ranging immigration reform package, failed to pass for the third year in a row this fall. But US Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming says he's headed back to Congress next month ready to try again.
''Unless you control illegal immigration now, our compassion for legal immigration will diminish,'' says Mr. Simpson, who cowrote the bill with US Rep. Romano L. Mazolli (D) of Kentucky. Congress failed to enact the reform bill this year because of inability to resolve differences between House and Senate versions.
Sanctions against employers for those who hire illegal immigrants, Simpson says, will be at the heart of any reform legislation. He concedes that other controversial provisions of reform he has pushed - like amnesty and guest-worker programs - may have to be approached in seperate legislation.
There's a growing belief that a sweeping amnesty provision in the original bill is a millstone for the reform package. The legislation snagged on disagreement over the amount of funding needed to pay for the anticipated social-service costs of ammnesty. Some see amnesty as morally wrong because it rewards lawbreakers.
While support for the bill in the House from Simpson's ally, Rep. Roman L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, is not certain (he won't be interviewed, saying he doesn't want to talk about immigration), the senator will be backed by the Reagan administration, says Alan Nelson, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
''We're ready to get right at it and move quickly,'' says Mr. Nelson. A hefty manpower for the Border Patrol alone - has lifted morale within the agency and convinced many that immigration reform is a possibility in the next session of Congress.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, often accused of taking an obstructionist stand on reform, has its own plans to introduce reform. Caucus officials say the focus of the package won't be determined until after the caucus holds ''town hall meetings'' of illegal immigrants and gathers information from Mexican and Central American leaders this month. Caucus members are expected to push their concerns over the racial discrimination that might result from employer sanctions, and to fight any guest-worker programs.
There is near-universal agreement that reform is necessary. But setting public policy on this issue is tough because the problem is perceived in different ways.
There is broad agreement that employer sanctions - criminal or civil - would be the single most effective way to eliminate the incentive for immigrants to come here illegally. Meanwhile, amnesty for those undocumented aliens who have sunk roots in this country is seen as a humane alternative to the folly of trying to find them all and deport them. Expansion of guest-worker programs is viewed as a way for the government to provide US employers with large numbers of workers while it ensures that those workers don't become a permanent, unplanned part of the US population. But these options raise other problems.
''Amnesty is not a bone to throw to us. In exchange for discrimination the payoff becomes legalization,'' says Joe Trevino, director of legislation for LULAC (League of United Latin American Communities). Employer sanctions, Hispanic leaders reason, could lead employers to discriminate against anyone who looks and sounds foreign. ''But for those Bill Blass suits we wear up here (in Washington, D.C.) we look the same as the INS profile (of an illegal alien).''
Many business groups say sanctions would be burdensome to employers, who would have to verify a workers' citizenship. Others say they will support employer sanctions only if they are coupled with guest-worker programs.
Some unions oppose guest-worker programs on grounds they allow a cheaper labor pool to undercut the gains of organized labor. Minorities oppose temporary worker plans, claiming that they perpetuate a permanent underclass by allowing immigrants to work at the lowest rung of the work force, but don't allow these people the opportunities to advance within the economy they contribute to.
Senator Simpson quotes a number of polls that show upwards of 80 percent of Americans supporting ''reform'' in general. And, he notes, the majority of US Hispanics support Simpson-Mazzoli specifically.
Trevino admits this is true. But, he says, ''the level of ignorance between the complexities and impact are not within the public domain. . . . They don't have time to read the bill line by line.'' He adds that he is suspicious of amnesty provisions in the bill because of the exclusions noted in fine print. A person would be inadmissable if he was a ''potential public charge,'' says Trevino, suggesting that this definition is open to wide interpretation.
''If you took the most rational American approach you'd come up with Simpson-Mazzoli,'' observes San Diego immigration consultant Joe Nalven. But he adds: ''Rationally, employer sanctions are really great. But given the whole experience of affirmative action you know it can be skewed in terms of how it's applied.''
Roger Conner, an immigration expert known for favoring strict reform laws, heads FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform). He views the nation's resources as a static pie being divided by an ever increasing population.
Opposed to amnesty as well as guest-worker programs and supportive of employer sanctions, Mr. Conner suggests that employers would be forced to pay higher wages to American citizens if all illegals were removed from the marketplace. And if no Americans would take the jobs, employers would have to become more efficient or ''lose out,'' he says. Illegal immigrants provide a crutch for employers who claim they can't do without them, he says, noting that the same argument was used to justify slaves and child labor.
Immigration policy today is in the hands of the employer, suggests Richard Mines, a labor and migration consultant. ''The central immigration problem is the fact that the employer is able to use up one group and replace it with a newer one,'' he says. His study of migration networks from Mexico shows the immigrants themselves become the migration conduit. Employers who need more workers prefer to have immigrants call home for a new supply that is less experienced in the US labor market, and less demanding.
Sloan Foundation demographer Teitelbaum looks at the immigration problem as a demographic continuum. Sheer population statistics alone, he says, support more border control. Today's total legal and illegal immigration as a proportion of the nation's population is lower today than during peak immigration (1901-10), he says. But compared to population increase (rather than to population size), ''immigration may be more significant now in demographic terms than ever before in this century,'' Teitelbaum says.
Immigration in recent years approached the average levels earlier this century, but the rate of US population increase is now much slower. If annual immigration to the US was 700,000 to 1 million in 1980-83, then immigration accounted for 30 to 40 percent of population increase, he calculates. Teitelbaum points out that the International Labour Organization projects a 20-year increase of 600 million to 700 million in the third-world labor force, more than the present labor forces of all industrialized nations combined. This suggests tremendous increases in pressure at the US borders.
But there will be a demand for these laborers, suggests Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a research fellow at the University of California, San Diego, who sees a need for less-restrictive reform. Her theory is that an international division of labor exists - that cheap, unskilled labor will come from third-world countries whether US employers hire them illegally here or legally overseas. She says the demand for those laborers is increasing, noting, ''We'll need 50 times more janitors than engineers by the end of the '80s.''