Congress searches for policy to deal with illegals who head for jobs in `El Norte'

Suddenly, men came running from all directions. There were shouts, and a dozen US border guards quickly surrounded a tractor-trailer truck that had just entered the United States. One of the guards had spotted a slender Mexican, about 20 years old, atop the trailer. The man had tried to slip past the checkpoint by lying flat on the roof. Everything at the crossing station came to a halt as the guards carried a ladder over to the truck and, in Spanish, tried to coax the young man down. He obeyed reluctantly only after one guard threatened to climb up the ladder after him. Once he was on the ground, the man's arms were pinned firmly behind him, and he was led into a detention building.

Such scenes will be repeated over and over this year along the 1,936-mile border that separates the US and its growing neighbor to the south. More than 1 million Mexicans will be arrested as they try to walk, run, wade, ride, float, or even fly across the border to what they call ``El Norte.''

The young man who was arrested here this day, as well as millions of others from Latin America, are drawn by a powerful magnet: US jobs.

Congress now must decide whether it is time to turn off the magnet's pull.

This month, the Senate will debate legislation that make it unlawful for American companies to hire Mexicans or anyone else who has entered this country illegally. The House has tentatively scheduled hearings on a similar bill Sept. 9.

Either bill would send shock waves through some segments of the American economy. In California, Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and a number of other states, illegal aliens hold down hundreds of thousands of jobs. They are maids, carpenters, truck drivers, factory workers, bricklayers, ditch diggers, tractor drivers, and fruit pickers. More and more of them work in white-collar jobs, and some even own small businesses.

The jobs question is one of four major controversies surrounding immigration reform in 1985. Those issues are:

Should Congress impose penalties, including fines and even jail sentences, on employers who hire illegal aliens?

Should hundreds of thousands of guest workers be permitted into the United States on a temporary basis to harvest crops and do other farm work each year?

Should millions of illegal aliens already here be made US citizens?

Should the costs for health care, welfare, schooling, and other public expenses be paid by the federal government if millions of undocumented aliens are suddenly legalized?

Insiders on Capitol Hill say that any one of those four issues could derail immigration legislation. Even so, prospects for passage are perhaps better than they have been for years.

The heart of any reform effort remains the jobs issue, which involves employer penalties for hiring illegal aliens. Employer sanctions, according to some experts, are the most effective way to dry up the flow of illegals to the US. Without jobs, El Norte will lose its appeal.

But sanctions remain a sensitive issue with some businessmen, civil rights groups, and Hispanic-Americans.

Two principal immigration bills are up for debate this year. Each takes a slightly different approach to the subject of employer sanctions.

In the House, the key measure is the Rodino-Mazzoli bill (HR 3080). In the Senate, the debate focuses on the Simpson bill (S 1200).

Each prohibits the employment of illegal aliens.

The House bill calls for fining employers $1,000 to $2,000 per alien for the first offense; $2,000 to $5,000 per alien for the second offense; and it carries up to a six month jail sentence if a pattern of violations can be proved.

The Senate bill carries a wider range of fines ($100 to $10,000), but it has similar criminal penalties, including jail terms.

There are two major differences. The House bill exempts small companies (fewer than than four employees); the Senate bill does not.

Also, the House bill turns the issue around by also fining any employer who discriminates against a person who is in the country legally. This provision is meant to calm civil rights groups and Hispanics concerned that employers, to play it safe, would refuse to hire anyone who looked ``foreign.'' The Senate bill requires only that the General Accounting Office monitor the new program for five years to check for possible discrimination.

Businessmen wince at this talk of fines, jail sentences, and government paper work. Some worry they will be turned into policemen.

The US Chamber of Commerce, which represents 180,000 companies, has been one of those seeking a compromise. Earlier this year it supported the Simpson measure. Then Simpson was changed, and jail sentences were added. Now the chamber is ``reassessing'' its position.

One previous point of contention has been skirted by all sides this year. That is the issue of worker ID cards.

At one time, reformers had proposed a national identity card as the best way to spot people in the US illegally. The idea was popular with the public. Gallup polls found that by more than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans were willing to carry such a national card.

Civil libertarians balked, however. So reformers now plan to rely on existing documents, such as social security cards, for identification. Congressional staff members say they hope that social security cards can be improved so they are counterfeit-proof. The House bill also calls for a three-year project under which the social security numbers of job applicants would be verified by telephone, much the way credit-card numbers are checked by stores all over the US.

First of four articles. Next: Farm labor and immigration.

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