Guess who's coming to the harvest?

NO one ever said that enacting a measure to stem the tide of illegal immigration into the United States would be easy. The Senate proved that point last week by approving an immigration control bill that, among other things, would allow some 350,000 foreign agricultural guest workers into the US annually for up to three years.

Now, with the House of Representatives looking at the immigration issue, the Senate's guest worker provision is taking on a special importance of its own.

The provision was passed to enable Western (and mainly California) fruit and vegetable growers to allow farm workers into the US on a temporary basis to help harvest perishable crops.

Three observations seem in order:

It is estimated that the majority of the 800,000 farm workers in the Western US are illegal aliens. In the case of the 400,000 farm workers already in California, as many as two-thirds of them may well be illegal aliens.

California food growers are facing stepped-up competition from abroad. Chilean grapes, for example, can be sold at a lower price in California supermarkets than California grapes. Why? Because of the lower Chilean harvesting and marketing costs, particularly lower wage levels for Chilean workers.

Western farmers have been depending on foreign (largely Mexican) farm workers for many years now. Using illegal aliens, in other words, has become part of the ``food system.'' Suddenly to change the rules of the game could not help having an adverse effect on the harvesting process as well as the price structure of the food chain.

A three-year limitation on the guest worker program appears reasonable. But the House should take a hard look at the numbers involved. Are 350,000 guest workers too many? A smaller number would make more sense, since the immigration bill passed by the Senate last week already includes a mechanism for letting thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of illegal aliens stay in the US. It would do that by providing legal status to illegals who entered the US before Jan. 1, 1980.

The Senate's guest worker clause should not be used as an excuse to scuttle passage of an immigration bill. At the same time, a compromise seems in order on the numbers of guest workers to be brought into the US. What the US does not need is a return to the bracero program of the post-World War II era, which allowed large numbers of guest workers into the US to work under often questionable conditions and under a permanent policy of officially sanctioned low wages.

In short, a compromise seems in order on the guest worker issue. California food growers may well need some short-term relief from the overall restrictive provisions of a new immigration measure. Still, as a matter of principle it is troubling to see US immigration policy become a captive of a special interest -- in this case, California agriculture.

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