Washington — The lengthy effort to reduce the flow of illegal aliens into the United States has changed focus. As the Senate worked toward final passage this week of landmark immigration reform, the attention shifted from keeping aliens out to letting foreign workers come in to harvest American crops.
Growers of fruits and vegetables, who in past years forced only modest changes in the Senate's immigration proposals, have become a muscle-flexing interest group as they seek to protect the pool of immigrant farm workers.
Within only four days, they persuaded the Senate to reverse itself and vote for a ``guest worker'' program that would admit 350,000 aliens into the country as legal temporary farm laborers.
Labor union lobbyists decried the guest-worker plan as a threat to American workers and wages. ``No other industry in America is guaranteed an oversupply of labor in order to assure a ready supply,'' charged Jane O'Grady, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.
But as labor lobbyists stood quietly off the Senate floor earlier this week, a representative for the perishable crop growers hustled busily. Smiling, Bill Hecht pushed out a hand to senators as they filed into the chamber and urged them to vote his way. Mr. Hecht, who has been working for the Western Growers Association for about eight months, deployed his full staff for the fight.
When the vote was over, his side had won. The Senate approved 51 to 44 a guest-worker amendment proposed by Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California, whose farm constituents rely heavily on alien workers.
The amendment, which is vehemently opposed by Hispanics as well as labor, could endanger final enactment of immigration reform, however. Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D) of New Jersey, chief sponsor of immigration reform in the House, has vowed that he will resist a guest-worker program.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, who has been working on immigration reform since he served as a member of a presidential commission in 1978, calls the growers the toughest group he deals with on reform legislation. He charged just before the guest-worker vote that ``there is no way to satisfy the perishable fruit growers.''
``They are heavy hitters,'' Senator Simpson told his colleagues. ``They spend big bucks, and they are quite effective, thank you.''
The lanky Wyoming senator, famed for his bluntness, charged that the growers were not moved by a need for survival. ``It is not survival but greed,'' he said.
``You are going to find exploitation deluxe,'' fumed the chief author of immigration reform legislation in the Senate.
Senator Wilson said later of his colleague, ``He was guilty of unfairness, and I told him so.'' The Californian told reporters, ``You had people whose economic livelihood was threatened. That's what this was all about.''
The grower controversy has now overshadowed the chief elements of the reform. The keystones of the legislation are sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers and eventual legalization for some foreign residents.
Supporters of the bill have long held that such a combination of actions will discourage illegal immigration. Even experts, however, are uncertain of its possible effect, or even of the number of illegal residents now here. Estimates most often used range from 2 million to 6 million.
Senate passage this year would give the two houses all of 1986 to draw up a compromise on immigration reform that eluded them in 1984. But the bill is already facing stiffer opposition than in the past. In the last Congress, Simpson's reform bill virtually breezed through the Senate in three days by a 4-to-1 vote.
This year, even Senate passage has proved difficult. In the House, where immigration reform last year squeaked by with a five-vote victory, the outlook is even less certain.
Some senators say the energy has gone out of the immigration reform effort.
``Everybody that worked on it so hard last year is petered out,'' says Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa, a member of the panel that wrote the reform bill. ``I'm not out there pushing it.''