Hispanic groups foresee backlash, ease opposition to immigration bills

Five states are considering laws to declare English as the official language of the United States. One of them is California, where voters last November approved a proposition requiring that election ballots be printed in English only. In northern Louisiana's Bossier City, hundreds of miles from the Mexican border, officials last year considered an ordinance to prohibit city contractors from hiring illegal immigrants.

And the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is working on a secret contingency plan in the event of a sudden massive influx of immigrants along the Texas border. The INS has recently completed a similar plan for a possible immigration emergency in Florida.

For some Hispanics, such developments amount to the handwriting on the wall. They see them as signs of resentment against their ethnic group, which makes up the majority of illegal immigrants to the US. Hispanic leaders, who have successfully fought federal immigration reform for four years, now see danger in continuing the crusade.

``On this issue you can only fight for so long and then you get a backlash,'' says Arnold Torres, who has earned a reputation as one of Washington's most hard-nosed lobbyists. As head of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the biggest Hispanic association, he helped engineer the defeat of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill in two Congresses.

But late last month, the solemn and intense Mr. Torres quit his post to return to his home in California, where he plans to found a grass-roots Hispanic group.

In an interview just before his departure, he said of the mood in the country and on Capitol Hill, ``It's different now.''

People are ``tired of hearing the criticism'' of Simpson-Mazzoli from Hispanics, he says.

``I don't know if we could defeat it'' this year, he says. ``The English-only movement is kicking us. People do believe that the country is being run over by undocumented aliens.''

He says that the Hispanic lobby is reassessing its image. ``We made a lot of enemies on the Hill,'' says Torres of the often stormy relations between his group and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, Torres and his allies have been stung by persistent charges that they did not represent the desires of their own people and by numerous polls that indicated that most Hispanics want immigration controls.

LULAC and the Council of LaRaza, an association of local Hispanic groups, are now working on an immigration reform bill that its drafters say will be more realistic than their previous efforts. And to give the proposal credibility, they are looking for congressional sponsors who supported the Simpson-Mazzoli bill.

Meanwhile, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D) of California -- the senior Hispanic member of Congress -- caused a few jaws to drop early this year by proposing a reform bill that would impose penalties against employers who hire illegal foreign workers, a provision that he and the Hispanic lobby had adamantly rejected. The bill is not likely to become law, but it is evidence of a general change in the atmosphere.

``I just see a new awareness'' about immigration reform, said Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, in an interview about the future of the bill that he and his cosponsor, Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, have seen die twice. ``It took a lot of courage for Ed Roybal to put in a bill with employer sanctions in it,'' says Senator Simpson. ``It showed me that he, too, wants to do something'' about immigration.

Simpson, who has locked horns frequently with Hispanic leaders and especially with Arnold Torres, applauds the recent, more conciliatory statements by Torres as ``great.'' He also notes that he has not seen Hispanic groups crank up their opposition this year as in the past.

Asked if that means the groups will drop their opposition to employer sanctions, he said, ``I think they will if we are able to have it drafted in a way where we have full monitoring'' to prevent job discrimination against persons who look or sound foreign.

The Hispanic groups ``know the reality of it is there can't be immigration reform on the track we're taking without employer sanctions,'' he says. Simpson is now preparing a revised, somewhat scaled-down bill for introduction as early as next week. At the core of Simpson-Mazzoli reform has been the carrot of legalization for qualified alien residents and the stick of sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

Still, the obstacles facing the reform bill remain formidable.

One major Hispanic group, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has taken a hard-line stand against employer sanctions. MALDEF lobbyist Richard Fajardo recently conceded that ``if Simpson-Mazzoli came up again, we ourselves would have a hard time stopping the legislation.''

But he noted that ``other forces,'' including Western farmers who want the cheap imported labor of Mexican workers and local government officials worried about the cost of adding legalized aliens to welfare rolls, also oppose the bill.

Mr. Fajardo says that his group still prefers having no reform to passing a bill like Simpson-Mazzoli. But with the failure of federal immigration reform, ``a lot of persons view the Hispanic community negatively,'' he says.

English-only proposals ``reflect this fear of cultural clash, a fear that America is changing into something un-American or foreign,'' he says. -- 30 --

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