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A hesitant House takes up immigration bill

A long-delayed immigration reform bill reaches the floor of the House of Representatives this week amid broad agreement that the nation should gain control of its borders, but widespread dissension over how to do it.

''It's so emotional,'' House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas said last week. ''Anything you do to satisfy one faction alienates another faction.''

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So ticklish is the issue that the House leadership held up consideration until after the California primary election. Now the unwelcome choices are at hand, and the House is scheduled to devote the week to debating immigration reform.

Hispanic leaders and organizations are fighting fiercely against the bipartisan bill, because it includes sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens. Sanctions would trigger job discrimination against anyone who looks or sounds foreign, these opponents charge.

''It's really a bill that's very discriminatory in its treatment of Hispanics , Asians, and other immigrants,'' says Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D) of California.

Such Hispanic opposition has swayed many liberals.

But conservatives are also critical because the bill, written jointly by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, would grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens who can prove they have been here for as few as two years.

''I'm very unhappy with ratifying massive evasions of the law,'' says Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois, who is still undecided on the bill.

The issue of legalizing alien residents has already touched off a political firestorm in the US Senate campaign in Texas. Rep. Kent Hance, a Democratic Senate contender, made a sudden jump in the polls after he launched a strong attack on the amnesty plan.

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Within one week, he says, he took his message to a variety of groups and found his audiences nodding in agreement. ''I figure if everybody from the Chamber of Commerce to labor unions agreed, then I'm on the right track,'' says Mr. Hance, who is still contesting his narrow primary loss earlier this month.

''It's a jobs issue,'' says Hance of the amnesty provision. He charges that legalized foreign workers would crowd the labor market, and he proposes spending

''The Kent Hance debate has raised awareness of the negative side of the bill ,'' says Rep. Buddy Roemer (D), whose Louisiana district borders on Texas. But he adds that few of his constituents have expressed a view. Some simply ''decry the problem'' of illegal migration into the United States, while a few farmers and small-business operators fear the loss of temporary foreign workers.

Still a smaller number, according to Mr. Roemer, worry that the immigration bill will be a first step toward a national identification card.

Roemer says that he goes into the debate with an open mind. ''I accept my responsibility that we have a problem in this country with illegal aliens,'' he says. But based on what he called ''raucus caucus'' of Democrats on the immigration issue last week, he adds that ''the bill's going to have a very difficult time.''

Members lined up to speak out against the bill, with few supporting it, except for Representative Mazzoli, the bill's sponsor, and Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

''I think immigration benefits the country, but you have to have control over it,'' says Representative Frank. Fortifying the borders would be ''very difficult and expensive,'' he says, adding, ''Why is it wrong to say it's illegal to hire people who are here illegally?''

But Frank also says of the reform bill, ''A lot of people just don't want to deal with it.''

House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. has zigzagged from being lukewarm to icy cold on the immigration bill during the past year. Last week he proclaimed himself ''undecided,'' but the normally liberal Massachusetts Democrat expressed misgivings about amnesty. It would ''mean 6 to 10 million (aliens) have the right to citizenship and bring their wives and children'' into the US, he said. ''I think there's a lot of concern out there.''

Speaker O'Neill gave his word that he would permit a vote on the House floor, and he has stuck by that commitment. However, he has agreed to allowing up to 73 amendments to the bill, with no time limit.

''There's a good chance that (these procedures) could ruin the thing,'' a House GOP leadership aide concludes. But he adds, ''If there's enough members determined, we'll get through it.''

As debate begins, the question is how determined the proponents are. The GOP aide called a Republican meeting on the issue ''subdued.'' Even the Reagan administration, which is pushing for the reform, dislikes some of the House provisions.

''The passion is all on one side,'' says Christopher J. Matthews, an O'Neill aide. He points out that the opposition is far more visible than the proponents now that the vote is near.

Among the backers are the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the AFL-CIO, both of which are lobbying, but without the same intensity of Hispanic opponents.

''I can't tell you we'll be spending 12-hour days up there'' on Capitol Hill, says NAM vice-president Randolph Hale. But he says his group will be sending out letters to the members. ''We're saying we're willing to be penalized'' by employer sanctions, he says.

The other side is making ''a lot of noise,'' says AFL-CIO lobbyist Jane O'Grady, but she says that immigration reform has ''been a priority'' for labor unions, because illegal workers ''undermine wages and working conditions.''

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