The lengthy effort to reduce the flow of illegal aliens into the United States has changed focus. As the Senate worked toward final passage this week of landmark immigration reform, the attention shifted from keeping aliens out to letting foreign workers come in to harvest American crops.
Growers of fruits and vegetables, who in past years forced only modest changes in the Senate's immigration proposals, have become a muscle-flexing interest group as they seek to protect the pool of immigrant farm workers.
Within only four days, they persuaded the Senate to reverse itself and vote for a ``guest worker'' program that would admit 350,000 aliens into the country as legal temporary farm laborers.
Labor union lobbyists decried the guest-worker plan as a threat to American workers and wages. ``No other industry in America is guaranteed an oversupply of labor in order to assure a ready supply,'' charged Jane O'Grady, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.
But as labor lobbyists stood quietly off the Senate floor earlier this week, a representative for the perishable crop growers hustled busily. Smiling, Bill Hecht pushed out a hand to senators as they filed into the chamber and urged them to vote his way. Mr. Hecht, who has been working for the Western Growers Association for about eight months, deployed his full staff for the fight.
When the vote was over, his side had won. The Senate approved 51 to 44 a guest-worker amendment proposed by Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California, whose farm constituents rely heavily on alien workers.
The amendment, which is vehemently opposed by Hispanics as well as labor, could endanger final enactment of immigration reform, however. Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D) of New Jersey, chief sponsor of immigration reform in the House, has vowed that he will resist a guest-worker program.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, who has been working on immigration reform since he served as a member of a presidential commission in 1978, calls the growers the toughest group he deals with on reform legislation. He charged just before the guest-worker vote that ``there is no way to satisfy the perishable fruit growers.''