Farm recruits -- through the back door

FORGET, for a moment, any political science textbooks you may have read recently about the American ``political process'' -- especially the ``legislative process'' -- whereby Congress carefully considers and then passes important legislation dealing with the nation's major problems. What is now taking place in the immigration area -- -- the nation's ``guest-worker program,'' under which foreign farm workers are let into the United States when American workers are temporarily unavailable -- shows that the way government is supposed to work is not always the way the system in fact functions.

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service is now contemplating a liberalization of the guest-worker program, geared toward allowing larger numbers of foreign workers into the US to harvest fruit and vegetables. Some 15,000 to 20,000 guest workers enter the US annually under the existing program, mainly to work farms on the East Coast.

As a quid pro quo for the larger numbers of guest workers, the INS would seek to curtail use of illegal aliens on farms. One way that the INS would seek to do that would be by requiring that farmers applying to the government for guest workers give consent to the INS to let immigration agents inspect farm records without having to obtain a search warrant.

The rule changes, which are still reportedly in the drafting stage on the part of the INS and the Labor Department, have, not surprisingly, drawn the ire of union and Hispanic groups. The latter groups argue that allowing larger numbers of guest workers into the US would harm existing American farm laborers by depressing agricultural pay in general; further, they say, it would be impossible to adequately police the way farmers deal with large numbers of guest workers to ensure adequate working and living conditions. Their concerns ought not be taken lightly.

The INS proposals are still a long way off. They will first have to be published. Then there would be a lengthy review process. Only then, after a period of comment, would the final rules take effect.

Whatever the merits of the INS plan to liberalize the guest-worker program, it should be disturbing to the American people that the changes are coming about through the administrative process rather than through legislation. Many of the changes being proposed by the INS -- at least in tone, if not detail -- were part of the final compromise Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill thrashed out in conference committee last year. But the measure was derailed in the final days of Congress.

In short, what is now happening to the guest-worker immigration program is reminiscent of what happened to the separate category of dealing with immigration asylum cases -- people who flee to the US for political reasons. The asylum issue was also part of the original Simpson-Mazzoli bill back in 1981. But now, some 80 percent or so of the asylum provisions have become ``law'' -- not through the normal congressional process, since Congress has repeatedly found itself unable to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, but through regulatory action by the Justice Department.

Congress owes it to the American people to take a hard and careful look at the guest-worker program and make such changes as are necessary. What needs to be remembered is that the post-World War II ``bracero program'' was finally ended precisely because many farmers were found to be abusing the program -- providing foreign farm workers substandard housing, low pay, and inadequate work conditions.

If the INS proposals serve to prod Congress into dealing directly with immigration reform, then they will have served a useful purpose. But immigration control -- of which the guest-worker program is an important element -- deserves a forthright front door treatment by the nation's lawmakers; not back-door regulation, no matter how well intentioned, by a federal administrative agency. ------30{et

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