The Reagan administration, pushing for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, yesterday outlined a compromise "guest worker" proposal to allow an unspecified number of foreign workers to enter the United States temporarily to harvest perishable crops.
The administration plan, introduced at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing would:
*Set up a temporary farmworker program for growers of "truly perishable" crops and would allow workers to move from grower to grower during the harvest season.
*Require the Justice Department to determine that domestic workers are not available for the jobs.
*Give foreign workers legal protections in the areas of housing standards, wages and labor organizing rights.
*Create a special commission to decide how many temporary workers should be admitted. The commission would set a cap on admissions after two years and make annual reductions of 5 percent to 20 percent a year afterward.
Under heavy pressure from lobbyists for major growers, the Senate last month passed an amendment to admit 350,000 foreign workers at any one time for periods of up to nine months to harvest perishable crops. Opponents added language to end the program after three years unless Congress reauthorized it.
Until yesterday, the administration had not taken a position on the guest-worker program. "This issue must be dealt with in a pragmatic, reasonable manner . . . to avoid potential efforts to bring this legislation down," said Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Alan C. Nelson, testifying before the subcommittee.
Growers of perishable crops, most of them in the West, say domestic workers do not want the harvesting jobs. Organized labor argues that domestic workers are available, but growers fire them and discourage unionization so they can use cheap foreign labor.
Dolores Huerta, first vice president of the United Farmworkers of America, charged that there are unemployed Americans and legal aliens who would like the jobs but are not willing to work for the wages of as little as $2 per hour that the illegal workers receive.
Meanwhile, the hearing deteriorated into a partisan shouting match after Huerta charged that Deputy Agriculture Secretary John R. Norton III, who had testified earlier on the administration proposal, kept workers in inhumane living conditions and had been found in violation of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Law.
"Knowing that I would be testifying today, Mr. Norton's employes asked that I tell the committee that in the Salinas lettuce labor camp they live in, they are not given mattresses or bedding, the toilets are filthy and stopped up, the showers are broken and the camp has been condemned. Petitions to the manager have had no results. But each worker pays $60 per week for his board at the camp," Huerta said.
Norton, who still has large fruit- and vegetable-growing operations in Arizona and California, had left the room by the time Huerta began her testimony. He was unavailable for comment later in the day. Earlier he said he has not participated in day-to-day management decisions in his farming operations since he joined Agriculture last May.
A spokesman for Norton said that housing and food for the workers at the Salinas lettuce operation are provided by a contractor, not by his company. He said that rent is not charged and that meals cost about $8 per day.
Huerta also brought up violations by Norton's company of California agricultural labor laws, mostly dealing with reprisals against workers involved in union activities. The same issue came up in his nomination hearing and was not considered important enough to threaten his confirmation