THE GOOD NEWS is that the House Judiciary Committee has reported the immigration reform bill. The bad news is the price paid to get the measure out of committee. Almost all the thorny issues that have held this legislation up for three congressional sessions are close to being resolved. Provisions on employer sanctions and amnesty for certain undocumented workers are no longer a problem. But the difficult question of illegal agricultural workers remains.
Legislators have been trying to accommodate growers, who in many areas depend on illegal workers and want to be assured of a continuing supply, and organized labor, which wants to protect workers from the low wages and undesirable working conditions that illegal aliens commonly endure. To appease these two factions, Democratic Reps. Charles Schumer of New York and Leon Panetta and Howard Berman of California have come up with what they call a compromise. It looks like a cave-in to us. By giving agricultural lobbyists all they could possibly have dreamed of and by offering incredibly generous benefits to illegal agricultural workers, the congressmen have won the support of these groups. But the Schumer proposal, drafted by legislators who do want to see an immigration bill passed, is more than the House should buy or the Senate will swallow.
Under the Schumer plan, any illegal alien would qualify for immediate permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship, if he can show simply that he worked in agriculture 60 days in the last year. Permanent residents may bring their immediate relatives into the country and all qualify at once for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. Since no one knows exactly how many illegal aliens have worked for growers in the last year -- let alone how large their families are -- the size and cost of this program are unknown. But it can be assumed many millions of people would qualify.
Moreover, if workers leave the farms after the requisite 60 days, they can be replaced by other aliens -- called replenishment workers in the bill -- who will also qualify for permanent residence after working for a relatively short period. Is this fair even to illegals who have been working here for years in factories or restaurants, not to mention the millions who have waited patiently for legal papers to enter this country?
The immigration bill is expected to reach the House floor before the August recess. Members will then have to weigh the broad interests of the country against the specific desires of some groups. Unless a more reasonable compromise on agricultural workers is devised, reform is surely doomed.