When Congress overhauled immigration laws in 1986, a key provision required the Justice Department to establish a special office designed to make certain that sanctions against employers for hiring illegal aliens did not lead to discrimination against foreign-looking citizens or aliens entitled to hold jobs.

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, testifying against the provision the previous year, dismissed such fears as "mere conjecture," saying there was "no convincing basis" to extend existing job-bias laws.

"One thing that clearly is not needed is yet another separate bureaucratic apparatus charged with largely duplicative responsiblity to investigate and prosecute parallel, if not overlapping, claims of employment discrimination," said Reynolds, who heads the department's civil rights division.

Unlike the immigration law's employer sanctions, phased in gradually, antidiscrimination provisions took effect when President Reagan signed the law Nov. 6, 1986.

The law added a ban against discrimination on the basis of citizenship status and extended the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of national origin to reach employers with four or more workers, rather than the employers with 15 or more workers covered under previous law.

The department did not propose regulations for implementing those provisions until March, did not name an acting special counsel or even set up a post office box to receive complaints until April, did not nominate a permanent special counsel until June and did not issue final regulations until October.

Last Tuesday, 14 months after the law took effect, the department brought its first case charging an employer with immigration-related discrimination. It filed suit against a New Mexico airline that keeps two lists of applicants for pilot positions -- one of citizens and the other of noncitizens -- and does not hire noncitizens unless no qualified Americans are available.

To civil rights and immigration lawyers and others who pushed for the provision, the delays reflect the department's lack of enthusiasm for the law.

"The administration really just sat on that part of the law," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national immigration task force. "They opposed it in the first place, and their implementation of it since enactment has been slow and halfhearted."

Michael Myers, counsel to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and refugee affairs, said, "The Justice Department has been inexcusably slow."

Lawrence J. Siskind, a San Francisco lawyer confirmed in November as special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices, defended the department's performance, saying its pace in getting started is "not bad by government standards."

"I think getting an office up and working in six months was a tremendous achievement," said Siskind, whose only background in discrimination law involved defending companies against lawsuits. "I don't think the department has anything to apologize for on that score."

In addition to the suit filed Tuesday, he said, the office has settled several cases in which employers agreed to rehire workers who alleged discrimination.

"There's plenty of zeal here," said Siskind, whose office has received 65 charges of discrimination. "We have a young, very aggressive staff that is enforcing this law to its limit. Someone calls up with a charge and we make sure every possible assistance is rendered to that person . . . . But we can't create business. We can't create legitimate charges."

Siskind said he finds himself in the somewhat strange position of heading an office that he is not certain is needed: one established to combat an anticipated, not existing, problem.

"We simply don't know at this point whether sanctions will lead to discrimination," he told the U.S. Civil Rights Commisssion last month. Therefore, we don't know whether our office and our work are necessary."

The law provides procedures for repealing the antidiscrimination provisions and closing the office after three years if the General Accounting Office determines that employer sanctions have not spurred significant discrimination.

The GAO's first report, issued in November, found no evidence of widespread discrimination caused by the law but noted that enforcement of the employer sanctions had only begun. "Thus, until now, employers have had little reason to discriminate against 'foreign-looking' U.S. citizens or legal aliens to avoid being sanctioned," the GAO said.

Immigration and civil rights lawyers said, however, that there would be more evidence of the discrimination they suspect is occurring if the administration had been more aggressive in publicizing the antidiscrimination provisions.

They said the department adopted a restrictive interpretation of the law in its implementing regulations and declined to open field offices, as the law permits.

"They haven't been in touch with the community," said Richard Larson, legal director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "There's an awful lot of discrimination."

However, he said, Siskind was "hired to run an office that's not really supposed to be effective. That's what they intend to find {no significant discrimination}, and that's what they are finding."

"Nobody knew to what extent discrimination would occur, but you don't deter without prosecuting cases," said Janet Kohn of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "There's no way to teach the existence of antidiscrimination law to employers like having cases actually prosecuted and somebody is fined."

Some civil rights lawyers questioned choosing Siskind as special counsel.

"The nomination was a seemingly typical one by the Reagan administration or by the Meese Justice Department of a white male with no relevant experience in the area of immigration law, and the only experience he has in employment discrimination law is in defense of employers," Larson said.

Others, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), sponsor of the antidiscrimination provisions, expressed hope for more action from the office since Siskind has been in place for several months.

"I don't think any of us who met with him have any doubt about his sincerity about doing that job," Kohn said.

"Frankly, I think Siskind is a very legitimate conservative," Frank said.

Siskind said that he is committed to enforcing the law and that his background in defending employers is not evidence to the contrary.

"By the nature of the legal profession, if you look for a lawyer who's a partner at a large law firm, you're going to find a lawyer with a predominately defense practice," said Siskind, who was tapped for the job by a law school friend, Steven Galebach, then an assistant to Attorney General Edwin Meese III. "That does not mean my commitment is simply to the defense."

However, he cautioned, "The law is a very restricted law. There could be an enormous amount of discrimination out there and yet we might not be filing any complaints" because it is not covered by the statute.

"We're not here to, quote, do good," Siskind said. "We're here to enforce a specific statute. We cannot go beyond what the statute says. You can be . . . sure we're not going to stop short of doing what the statute says."