FIGS ARE A case in point. Harvesting this fruit presents special problems for western growers. They watch the trees carefully as the fruit ripens, because harvesting must be completed quickly. Machines are rolled into the groves to shake the trees, and then farm workers have only a short time to pick up the fruit from the ground before it rots. A sizable labor force has to be on hand, but it is needed for only a day or two. The growers say they can't find Americans to do this work, and must depend on undocumented workers. Unions, on the other hand, believe that if pay and benefits were sufficient, there would be plenty of local job applicants. It is this dispute about the country's need for foreign agricultural workers that has stalled the immigration bill this time around.

The treatment of temporary farm workers has always been an issue, but this year it is critical. The Senate, over the objection of the bill's author, Sen. Alan Simpson, added a three-year guest worker program to the bill, but that is unacceptable to House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino. For more than a year, a group of committee members has been trying to work out a compromise, which was supposed to have been ready on May 1. Mr. Rodino has now extended that deadline and postponed committee consideration of the bill until the middle of June.

Single-issue stumbling blocks have plagued this bill. It has been stalled in the past because of disputes over employer record-keeping, the date of the amnesty, the possibility of discrimination against Hispanic-Americans, the form of papers certifying legal immigration status and the labor needs of certain industries, particularly agriculture. Special interest lobbiesstop the legislation. According to polls, however, the general public has consistently supported immigration reform.

Time is running short in the 99th Congress; another six-week delay, especially in an election year, is discouraging. Reps. Charles Schumer, Leon Panetta and Howard Berman, who are working to resolve the farm labor problem, should be encouraged to proceed. But if they cannot work out a compromise, the chairman has a responsibility to move the bill and settle the problem the old fashioned way -- by taking a vote.