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Newcomers and law

To its credit, the US House of Representatives is taking up the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill - at long last, and at great length. The House, after stalling on the issue through all last year and this spring's Democratic primary race, is giving the measure - and some six dozen proposed amendments - a full week for debate and voting. This is more floor attention than the House gave to any other issue this session, including defense spending and taxes. It reflects the immigration issue's importance.

We continue to support the basic provisions of the bill, as we did when the House first considered it in December of 1982. It would declare an amnesty for illegal immigrants who came to the United States before 1982. And it would impose penalties on employers who hire newly arriving illegal immigrants.

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There are problems with the bill or many of the amendments. One provision that would curtail the bringing of relatives would affect ethnic groups other than the Hispanics who are the main concern of the legislation; reuniting families on the American shore is a longtime tradition. Employer penalties could lead to discrimination against Hispanic-looking job applicants. The Hispanic-American community is itself split between those who want to protect their jobs from competition from newcomers and those troubled by potential civil rights abuses. Organized labor favors the bill, to protect jobs. Some business groups do not like the penalties for employers.

The politics of the bill are tricky. The House leadership now thinks it has a gentleman's agreement with the White House: If the bill passes, the President will not veto it. Votes could be attracted by a temporary workers provision. Neither party wants to upset Hispanic-Americans, the fastest-growing voting bloc , whose support could be crucial in the Southern tier of states in November.

In some ways more troubling are the overtones of fear, prejudice, and exclusionism behind the immigration bill debate. And even if Simpson-Mazzoli passes, will the influx of illegal Central American and Mexican immigrants be substantially stemmed?

All this needs careful airing.

No fence along the Rio Grande could bring order to the illegal-immigrant issue. The border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific covers a distance as great as the Eastern US coast from Jacksonville, Fla., to the tip of Maine. Border patrol actions, or possibly even legislation, cannot deal adequately with the disparity in economic opportunity between the United States and Latin nations, or the social and civil unrest in countries like El Salvador, which send Hispanics northward.

But the Congress can address the incentives for immigration and put the issue on a legalized footing inside the United States.

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