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Immigration Bill Opposed by Hispanic Coalition

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Washington--Leaders of Hispanic advocacy groups met at Georgetown University last month to proclaim their unified opposition to proposed new federal legislation that would curb the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

The Senate passed a bill in May, called the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, offering citizenship to some aliens now illegally residing in the U.S., but proposing penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens in the future. A House bill, similar to the Senate's, is expected to come to a vote later this summer.

The number of illegal immigrants in this country is now estimated at about three million, and about half of them are from Mexico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The proposed legislation represents the first major change in immigration policy since amendments to the McCarran-Walter Act in 1965 abolished "national origins" quotas.

Some speakers at the meeting objected to the naturalization system proposed by the bill because of its potential threat to children born here to illegal aliens. Under the proposed new law, the parents could be deported, if they arrived after 1979, and their U.S.-born children would be left with no one to protect their rights, speakers said.

"There are already too many of these children and no one seems to care," said Adelfa Callejo, an attorney from Dallas, Texas, and a member of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (maldef). Ms. Callejo proposed that attorneys be appointed to protect such children if their parents are deported. In Texas, some parents have been arrested when they came to schools to pick up their children, she said.

Most speakers at the Georgetown meeting said they do not oppose some kind of immigration-law reform, but they object to the enforcement method proposed by the two bills in Congress--sanctions against employers. These, they said, will lead to a general backlash in society that will affect all Hispanic people.

Penalties Seldom Enforced

Antonia Hernandez, associate counsel at maldef, said a study of the employer-sanction system used in European countries, prepared by the Notre Dame University Law School, has already shown that penalties are seldom enforced and they do not stop illegal immigration, even when they are enforced.

"They won't work. They won't be enforced. They'll lead to discrimination," Ms. Hernandez stated. Discrimination will follow because many employers, afraid of becoming targets of federal search squads, will avoid hiring people who look Hispanic and who speak with accents, several speakers said.

Much of the comment from advocacy groups at the day-long meeting focused on the role of the Catholic Church in this issue. The Church has abstained from taking a position on the proposed immigration bills. Several Church officials were present at the discussion sponsored by Georgetown, which is a Jesuit-affiliated university.

Advocacy leaders charged that the Church leadership is not interested in protecting the rights of the illegal immigrants because many--although they are Roman Catholics--tend not to be regular church-goers. The speakers also claimed that, lacking the aid of the Church as a lobbyist, their chances to kill or amend the bill have been substantially weakened.

"The Church has chosen the nuclear freeze as their big issue; they've got tuition tax credits, they've got prayer in school; they're not concerned with these undocumented workers," said Arnoldo S. Torres, national excutive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Cecilio J. Morales, a spokesman from the U.S. Catholic Conference, Office of Hispanic Affairs, denied that the Church is less concerned about these immigrants than others. Reading from a prepared statement, Mr. Morales said that the conference favors many reforms in immigration policy, and these reforms "are likely to be applied at an appropriate time."

At present, he said, the Church "neither opposes nor supports" the current Senate bill. But he added that he hopes it will soon take "a stronger position."

The main proposal in both the Senate and House bills is a sanctions provision that would impose penalties of $1,000 on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. After the first offense, the penalty would be increased to $2,000 and the employer could be imprisoned.

Another provision in the Senate bill would offer citizenship to illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before 1977. That group may total about one million people, according to federal census officials' estimates. Those who entered between 1977 and 1979 could become residents three years after the bill's enactment, and those who came after 1979 could be subject to deportation and would not necessarily become citizens.

Other provisions would respond to concerns of agricultural interests by relaxing the requirements for hiring groups of illegal aliens on a temporary basis.

The bill would also offer growers a three-year grace period to transform their labor forces from illegal to legal workers.

Another meeting of Hispanic advocacy groups is scheduled for later this month in Los Angeles.

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