There are two underlying issues involved in the historic congressional discussion about immigration in recent days - as well as the specific arguments over the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. The first issue is cheap labor. The second involves the ethnic and cultural makeup of the American community.
At present the flow of almost unrestrained illegal immigration over the southern frontiers of the United States is the country's principal existing supply of cheap labor. It has the same effect as unrestricted immigration had from the American Revolution down to World War I. It keeps wages down and impedes the process of unionization of the labor force.
In today's Southwest the employers of illegal labor are largely the big growers of seasonal fruits and vegetables. They assert, with considerable accuracy, that they could not survive economically if they had to pay the full legal wages of today.
Cheap labor spills up from the south and seeps in from the coast and affects the labor market in all parts of the country. Here in Boston many an illegal immigrant is found in the back kitchens of restaurants. Since they have no legal rights they work for whatever wage the employer chooses to give them.
If the labor unions had their way, the frontiers would be adequately patrolled and the supply of cheap labor would dwindle to a trickle. It could be done. The United States is the only big and modern country with porous frontiers. There is no comparable flow of cheap labor into any other modern industrial country and no such flow at all into the communist countries.
Opposing the flow of cheap and unregulated labor are two different forces with different motivations. The labor unions lead the pressure for controls and restraints. The AFL-CIO is always automatically in favor of tighter frontiers. So, too, are those individuals and organizations who represent the earlier waves of white immigration.
Back in 1952 when the last of old-style immigration control bills was passed (the McCarran-Walters Act with quotas based on countries of origin) the CIO joined forces with the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of the War of 1812.
Down to World War II the open and declared purpose of immigration controls was to retain in the American population the predominance of the early ethnic strains. The original exclusion bill, passed in 1921, based quotas on the census of 1910. The second such bill, passed in 1924, went back for the base year to 1890. The 20 years between 1890 and 1910 were years of large Italian and Jewish immigration. The switch back from 1910 to 1890 increased the quotas for people from the British Isles, including Irish, and for Germans and Scandinavians.
The old quota system, which strongly favored northern Europeans of Christian cultural background, survived down through World War II. There is little left now of that old system. The present bill would grant amnesty to many illegal immigrants now in the US. The numbers can only be estimated. The net affect, however, would be to legalize the residence of perhaps nearly 9 million or 10 million cultural Hispanics, making them a major new element in the population.
Few today use the language once heard freely in debates over immigration. Novelist Kenneth Roberts once wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that unrestricted immigration would produce ''a hybrid race of good-for-nothing mongrels.'' But there are still many in Washington who regret immigration from outside northern Europe.