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Rodino Postpones Immigration Bill : Backers Say Measure Is Near Death Because of Long Delay

Times Staff Writer

Key backers of immigration reform legislation pronounced it near death in Washington Thursday after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), under pressure from liberal Democrats, delayed until June committee action on the bill that would provide amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens in this country.

After months of delays, the judiciary panel had been scheduled to take up the complex and controversial measure next week. But Rodino pushed back the date until the second week of June after being urged in a letter signed by 16 of the committee’s 20 Democrats to give them more time to work out a deal on a thorny issue involving so-called foreign guest workers.

Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) charged that the delay was designed to push the bill back so far on the legislative calendar that there would be no practical way to squeeze it through Congress before adjournment at the end of the year. “The body isn’t in the morgue yet, but this is giving it the last rites,” said Lungren, also a member of the panel.

Barnaby Zall, general counsel for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, agreed that the “go-slow” approach appeared deliberately designed to derail the measure. “It’s a death of a thousand cuts,” said Zall. “It’s a pretty good indication that they (Democrats) don’t want to move the bill.”

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In the letter to Rodino, the Democratic signers said that they had been working for several months to achieve a “consensus” on the guest-worker controversy and hoped to have differences worked out by June. They promised not to seek any further delays if the problems are not resolved by then.

Rodino, in announcing the delay, said Democratic negotiators had advised him “that they are close to reaching final agreement.”

The full judiciary panel has been sitting on the legislation, ironically sponsored by Rodino, since November when the measure was endorsed by an immigration subcommittee chaired by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.). Mazzoli was one of the committee Democrats who did not sign the letter to Rodino.

In addition to amnesty, the legislation would seek to discourage a new wave of job-seeking illegal immigrants by, for the first time, imposing economic sanctions on employers who knowingly hire them. But Western growers, who rely heavily on illegal workers to pick crops, claim that the changes could devastate their business.

Under pressure from growers, the Republican Senate last September approved a version of immigration reform legislation that included a new program allowing farmers to use hundreds of thousands of low-paid foreign workers at harvest time. A similar provision was endorsed by the House in 1984 before efforts to reach an immigration compromise fell apart in a House-Senate conference committee.

Farm labor and civil rights groups contend that domestic labor supplies are adequate to fill the needs of growers and claim that the growers simply want to keep costs down by maintaining a source of cheap workers.

Complicating the struggle over the guest-worker program is an unusual ideological split between Democrats in the committee and in the full House. The panel Democrats tend to be more liberal as a body than the rest of House Democrats. This was strikingly demonstrated recently when Rodino and other committee Democrats tried to bottle up legislation relaxing gun control laws, but were overruled by the full House, which is heavily Democratic.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who drafted the letter to Rodino, insisted that he and his Democratic committee colleagues wanted the delay to work out a compromise on the guest-worker issue and not to bury the bill. But Berman acknowledged that, if compromise attempts fail, he would try to bottle up the bill in committee because a wide open guest-worker plan probably would be approved on the House floor if the measure got that far.

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“You’re damn right I’m afraid of that,” Berman said. " . . . I just don’t think immigration reform should become the grower agricultural enslavement act of 1986.”


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