Still debated: sanctions, amnesty; Immigration reform neare

The United States, which has for decades shied away from tight control of its borders, has moved a step closer to major immigration reform. The Senate's immigration reform package has gathered an impressive set of opponents, left and right. They range from the US Chamber of Commerce to Hispanic groups, from liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican leader of the New Right.

But the pressure to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants brought overwhelming approval in the Senate this week for a bill sponsored by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming. The Simpson measure had lost none of its momentum since it first passed the Senate late last year.

The big difference now is time. In 1982 the Congress adjourned before the House completed its work.

This go-around, the House has a year and a half to pass a similar bill. House leaders are indicating they will proceed, although no date has yet been set for consideration.

''We have the votes. There's not much doubt about that,'' says a House staff member involved with the bill. The question is when the leadership will decide to deal with such a contentious problem, which is certain to make political enemies.

A quietly optimistic Senator Simpson is predicting that the bill he has been working on almost since his arrival in Congress in 1979 will finally become law this year. And while the Senate made some changes, he told reporters this week that ''the guts of it is still there.''

The two most important and most controversial parts of the bill include sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens and amnesty for illegal immigrants already here.

The Chamber of Commerce argues that the employer sanctions will result in burying small businesses in paper work, while California produce growers who routinely hire Mexican workers at harvest time are concerned about labor supply.

The chamber's unlikely allies in opposing sanctions have been Hispanic and civil rights groups, which charge that if employers risk fines for hiring illegal immigrants, they will discriminate against any worker who looks or sounds foreign.

Supporters of the bill counter that the sanctions are the only practical way to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the US borders.

On the other hand, the bill offers a ''carrot'' in the form of legalization. Millions of illegal residents in the US could come out of hiding and apply for amnesty and eventually citizenship. Census experts have no count of how many people that would include, but the estimate of undocumented residents ranges from 2 million to 12 million.

The prospect of legalization, which has supporters among Hispanics, has touched off criticism from conservatives. Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire unsuccessfully pushed for denying welfare and other government benefits to aliens until they become citizens.

Simpson defended the amnesty provisions by arguing that illegal workers, about 80 percent of whom are Mexican, are not dependents. ''These persons are people who come to work,'' he says. ''They are not here to go on welfare.''

As passed in the Senate, the bill would authorize $35 million to beef up border patrols, and it would reform procedures for granting political asylum to political refugees. It would also set new preference formulas for legal immigration to the US.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, differs somewhat from the Senate version. As passed out of the House Judiciary Committee , the Mazzoli bill cuts back greatly on paper work for businesses. Only employers found to hire illegal aliens would be required to keep records of their workers' residency status.

Also, the House does not tamper with existing laws on legal immigration, which House sponsors prefer to leave alone. Moreover, the amnesty provisions for illegal aliens is more liberal in the House bill. The Senate would offer a two-stage legalization to residents here since 1980, and the House is offering permanent residency status to those here since 1982.

Those differences, which loom big in the debate, may prove to be easily resolved, partly because of what Simpson calls an ''open line of communication'' between House and Senate sponsors. He also indicated after the Senate vote that the differences could be negotiated in a House-Senate conference.

He conceded that the cost of the immigration reform could cause political problems. Estimates vary from $1 billion a year to Simpson's prediction of $1.4 billion over four years.

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