Congressional hopes for a comprehensive revision of federal immigration laws were revived last week as the Senate Judiciary Committee moved toward finishing work on one proposal, and Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), influential chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced another.
The participation of Rodino, who has not sponsored immigration legislation since his last effort died in the the House Rules Committee in 1975, was seen as a sign that Congress may be ready to act.
But sources close to Rodino say that he is not likely to push vigorously for passage of the politically sensitive legislation unless he has bipartisan backing and the full support of the Reagan administration.
With estimates of the number of illegal aliens in the United States as high as 6 million, immigration reform has prompted heated congressional debate since 1981. But immigration legislation has been repeatedly derailed by interest groups led by Hispanics and U.S. growers who depend on migrant labor.
The Senate effort is being led by Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), whose legislation is much narrower than his past proposal, an apparent effort to avoid some of the difficulties that previously proved fatal.
But Simpson has made it clear that he expects major changes as the bill moves through Congress and that he is willing to compromise as long as the final version contains provisions to punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, a legalization program for illegal workers already in this country and increased enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.
The House legislation, cosponsored by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.), is a much broader version, similar to the compromise that died in the final days of last year's Congress as House and Senate conferees ran out of time.
In introducing the bill on Thursday, Rodino said, "As Americans, we must ask ourselves how much longer we are willing to pay the moral, social and economic price of avoiding our sovereign responsibility to control our borders. I am fearful that unless Congress acts to address this problem now, the time may come when America is forced to close its doors to everyone. This is a tragic outcome and must not be allowed to happen."
Hispanic leaders oppose both the House and Senate proposals, charging that they would escalate job discrimination against legal Hispanic immigrants and Hispanic Americans. In addition, they have said that migrant workers would be deprived of job opportunities because restrictions on the temporary importation of cheap foreign farm laborers would be eased.
Wade Henderson of the American Civil Liberties Union said his organization also opposes both bills. "We are strenuously opposed to employer sanctions," he said, adding that he fears discrimination against Hispanics.
Henderson also questioned provisions in the bills for an expanded guest worker program, saying that such workers have historically been exploited.
The Rodino-Mazzoli bill would provide civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. The practice, which is not now illegal, is thought to lure illegal aliens into the United States.
The Rodino-Mazzoli bill also would give many aliens who arrived in the United States illegally before 1982 the chance to legalize their immigration status.
The Simpson bill proposes amnesty only for illegal aliens who arrived before 1980 -- and only if a presidential commission certifies that new enforcement measures have begun to "curtail" the flow of illegal immigrants.
To discourage discrimination against Hispanics, the Rodino-Mazzoli bill would create an Office of Special Counsel in the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute civil rights violators.
Both bills would attempt to strengthen enforcement of immigration laws by increasing funding for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected attempts by Democrats last week to make the bill more like the House version. The committee markup is scheduled to resume Tuesday.