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Dispute grows over immigration law's anti-bias hiring clause. Critics contest administration's requirement of bias `intent'

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Civil-rights groups, Hispanic organizations, and members of Congress are charging that President Reagan is attempting to emasculate the antidiscrimination portion of the new immigration-reform bill. Immigration analysts see the controversy as the result of an administration attempt to limit an expansion of the federal government's role in civil-rights enforcement.

The controversy centers around a provision in the legislation that calls for the appointment of a federal special counsel to prosecute employers who discriminate against their workers or job applicants on the basis of nationality or alien status. The provision applies to United States citizens and aliens with legal status.

The reform legislation grants amnesty to certain undocumented immigrants who entered the US before Jan. 1, 1982, and establishes a process whereby they can eventually become US citizens. The law also imposes sanctions on employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens.

Some members of Congress warned during debate on the legislation that the fear of sanctions could prompt employers to discriminate against job applicants with, for instance, Hispanic surnames. They also expressed concern that confusion over the sanctions language could spark a rash of discriminatory firings of current Hispanic or alien employees.

When he signed the landmark immigration-reform bill Nov. 6, however, President Reagan issued a statement offering new interpretations of the antidiscrimination language. He argued that employers would be allowed to exclude applicants who failed an English test or an aptitude exam as long as the employer did not administer the test with ``discriminatory intent.''

Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who wrote the antidiscriminatory section of the bill, called Reagan's interpretation ``intellectually dishonest, mean-spirited,'' and incorrect.

The congressional conference committee that produced the final version of the legislation did not require proof of intent in discrimination causes, according to Arnold Leibowitz, an expert who is an expert on the immigration legislation. Mr. Leibowitz drafted several early versions of the legislation when he served as the counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy from 1981 to 1984.

The President's reading of the bill, Mr. Leibowitz added, ``will be making a tough job almost impossible'' for the special counsel that will be charged with prosecuting discrimination cases under the new law.

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