Guest workers for the United States?

The Reagan administration reportedly is pressing ahead with a plan to institute a new guest-worker program that could allow hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to enter the United States legally for agricultural and industrial work. The plan, similar to proposals voiced by Mr. Reagan during last year's presidential campaign, is seen by administration officials as a way of curbing illegal immigration and furthering the objective of a special "accord" between Mexico and the United States.

Is this the right time to return to what is basically a modified "bracero" system? The bracero program was in effect from 1942 to 1964 and brought from 4 million to 5 million Mexican farm workers to the US. Many eventually took up permanent residence. During much of that period American workers were overseas in military service.

While only the barest outline of the Reagan program is known, the plan would authorize visas to Mexican workers who work in the US but travel back and forth between the two nations. Mr. Reagan is said to believe that workers should not be linked to specific firms -- or farms -- as was the case under the bracero program. He would have them move about freely on the open labor market.

Such as agreement obviously would go far in helping to idetify aliens now residing illegally in the U.S. Mexican officials are believed to be sympathetic to a guest-worker plan, which is expected to be a chief topic of discussion between Mr. Reagan and Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, when the two leaders meet in Washington early in June.

The administration is to be credited for seeking action on the illegal-alien problem, which has been unresolved for too long now. But it is a question whether it should rush to a guest-worker program without taking into account the larger issue of immigration reform in general. Is there evidence that many thousands of jobs are going unfilled, despite the fact that 8 million Americans are unemployed? should the US adopt a program so obviously benefitting one nation while ignoring the swell of applications for permanent admission to the US in consular offices around the world?

A federal commission on immigration recently proposed a modest increase in legal immigration and a form of worker identification for all workers. The commission, which found that the illegal alien problem is "out of control" in the US, also favored sanctions against employers hiring aliens.

A number of experts believe that the commission's broad recommendations are fairly close to public and congressional sentiment. It might be a serious tactical mistake for the administration to overlook public unease about substantially enlarging immigration to the US. And it could be particularly embarrassing for the US if Mexican authorities were led to believe that the administration might be able to win easy legislative acceptance of a guest-worker program. Labor unions and some US-Mexican groups are vehemently opposed. Congress, it should be recalled, ended the bracero program in 1964 following widespread public disapproval.

The administration would be wise to consider its guest-worker program only as part of a more comprehensive reform of immigration laws in general. Between 20, 000 and 30,000 workers are currently allowed into the US on a temporary work basis. If demand for temporary workers sharply increases, that existing program could be modified without experiencing the more wrenching change in immigration policy which would occur if the US were to adopt a revised bracero plan.

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