Urgency on immigration

How short-sighted if last-minute obstacles were to block one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the US Congress. That is the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1982 which seeks to come to grips with the growing problem of illegal entry of aliens into the United States. Much political energy and time have been invested in this sweeping reform bill. Will Congress have the will and courage to adopt it in this lame duck session?

It is to be fervently hoped so. The so-called Simpson-Mazzoli bill may be far from perfect. But it represents a creditable compromise solution to a complex problem and provides a basic framework that can be adjusted and improved upon by future congresses. If the legislation is not passed, the whole process will have to be started over again - and in a Congress which will be extremely politicized because of the looming presidential election. It will become increasingly difficult to reforge the bipartisan coalitions needed to support a reform.

Pressures to weaken or stop the bill are coming in part from organized labor. The AFL-CIO wants restrictions on the US hiring of foreigners as temporary workers. Its concern is that the importation of workers under the so-called H-2 program will be expanded and take jobs away from domestic unemployed. Other critics are preparing to fight the bill's elaborate amnesty provisions, under which millions of illegals already living in the US would be granted permanent resident status. ''It seems ludicrous to be granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens at a time when our country is suffering from such high unemployment,'' Rep. F. James Sensenbren-ner of Wisconsin is quoted as saying.

Such arguments may have a superficial logic to them, but they are narrow-minded. The amnesty provisions represent a hard-won tradeoff for tougher enforcement of immigration law; they are a response to humanitarian concern about the millions of illegal aliens who have raised families in the US and whose expulsion from the country would not only be unconscionably callous but impractical. Perhaps the amnesty provisions can be tightened but, without them, the bill would be gravely flawed and probably even lost. Labor wants them because it can more easily unionize legal workers.

As for the jobs problem, recession is not going to be a permanent condition and should not be myopically used now as an excuse to stop much-needed immigration reform. In more normal times, American workers do not always accept the kinds of jobs and wages that most illegal immigrants will accept. In the future, moreover, the need will be increasingly for skilled not unskilled labor.

If Congress lets itself be intimidated, the public is bound to become frustrated and doubt that anything can ever be done to control the US borders. Even as opponents try to weaken the legislation, illegal immigration is on the rise because of the deterioration of economies worldwide. The flow from Mexico continues unabated, and now even Bangla-deshis are entering the US unlawfully, having exhausted their asylum claims in West Germany. How much longer can the US go on tolerating the influx of so many hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens annually? Failure to do something about the situation makes a mockery of immigration law and feeds cynicism about observance of law in general.

Tightening immigration law is not all that is needed to begin to attack a condition that threatens profound social and political as well as legal problems for the US. Clearly the root solution lies in improving economic conditions in the countries of origin - especially Mexico, from which the largest number of undocumented aliens come. In this regard the austerity measures just announced by Mexico's new President, Miguel de la Madrid, are an encouraging sign of determination to do something about the nation's faltering economy.

But, under the best of circumstances, it will be a long time before immigration pressures abroad decline appreciably. The United States is still the prime magnet for those in search of work and opportunity. So there should be no delay in getting the Simpson-Mazzoli bill on the books - and ending the present immigration chaos.

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