Washington — The saga of the massive immigration reform bill before Congress reads a little like a legislative Perils of Pauline. The 97th and 98th Congresses tried and failed to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Now, time is running out on the 99th Congress as some lawmakers strive to pass an immigration bill before it is time to adjourn.
Last Friday, key Democrats in the House of Representatives reached agreement on one of the most controversial provisions in the bill, which would regulate the use of foreign workers in agriculture. The full House is expected to consider the bill this week.
But pitfalls aplenty lie in its path. Even if the House passes the immigration bill, as Democratic leaders anticipate, lawmakers will still have to hammer out a compromise with the Senate, which passed its own immigration bill last year. The conference could bog down in a dispute over the foreign-workers issue. Meanwhile, the 99th Congress is slated to last just three more weeks.
``We'll get a bill out of the House, after that I don't know,'' says House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey, the bill's chief sponsor. ``If we have a lame-duck session after the elections, that will help, and we do have a President that wants an immigration bill, so that is a big help.''
The House bill has three major elements. One levies penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Another grants legal status to millions of illegal aliens who can prove they were in the country before Jan. 1, 1982. But the third element is the most controversial.
This part would allow permanent resident status for foreigners who can prove they had been agricultural workers in the United States for at least 60 days between May 1985 and May 1986. The measure was put in at the insistence of many agricultural interests, which provided critical support of employer penalties on the condition that the bill ensured a continued supply of foreign labor.
Champions of the measure say it strikes a fragile balance between conflicting agricultural, Hispanic, and labor interests. ``No one is crazy about it, but they want a bill so they go along,'' explains Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York, who fashioned the measure earlier this year with Democratic Reps. Leon Panetta and Howard Berman, both of California.
But it has raised the ire of some members, who said that the measure is too generous to foreign workers, and does not offer enough incentive for employers to give preference to US workers for jobs. Republicans have grumbled that they were left out when the deals on agricultural workers were made. A number of Democrats, such as bill co-author Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, had serious reservations about the compromise as well.
``It does not reflect the feelings of most people in Congress,'' says Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R) of California.``It's a compromise between the liberal, more liberal, and most liberal.''
Representative Lungren endorses the guest-worker program contained in the Senate bill, which would allow up to 350,000 foreign workers into the country each year for nine months. Critics of the Senate plan say it would lead to exploitation of foreign workers.
On the other hand, the Democrats' compromise plan does not require foreign workers to remain in agriculture, and entitles them to public benefits such as welfare and food stamps.
The compromise seems set to go through as a result of Friday's events. Reps. Schumer, Panetta, and Berman agreed to slight changes in their compromise to make it more palatable to Rep. Mazzoli, thus bringing one of the compromise's major Democratic critics into the fold.
As a result of this new unity among key Democrats, the House Rules Committee is expected to decide to protect the farm-worker provision from any changes on the House floor this week, thus virtually ensuring it will be part of the House bill.