In an action that could affect more than 1.5 million illegal aliens, the Senate voted Wednesday to bar deportation of the immediate family members of persons who qualified for amnesty under the 1986 immigration law.
Many of these relatives had "fallen through the cracks" because they did not themselves receive protection under the amnesty program and are forever in danger of being deported, senators who supported the measure said.
'In the Shadows'
"These people should not face such a threat," said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). "We should tell these people they can stay with their families. They should not have to live in the shadows any longer."
The action, taken on a 61-38 vote, addresses one of the strongest criticisms of the landmark 1986 immigration law--that it threatened to tear apart families whose members did not all qualify for the same immigration status. Although Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have said that they would not carry out wholesale deportation of such persons, they have refused to provide guarantees, saying that the law does not permit them to do so.
In other action on the bill, the Senate voted to provide at least 216,000 visas a year for U.S. citizens' extended family members living in other countries. The 62-36 vote appeared to conflict with a central provision of the bill that would have established an annual limit of 600,000 immigrants to the United States.
The votes came during lengthy debate over legislation aimed at sweeping reform of the nation's system of "legal" immigration, the first such change in the laws since 1965. The Senate is expected to complete action on the bill later this week and the House is scheduled to take up its own version of the legislation later this summer.
Under the proposed bill, the United States would significantly increase the number of visas to European immigrants. Sponsors said that the current system discriminates against such countries, noting that more than 85% of U.S. immigrants come from Latin American and Asian nations.
The bill would create a new category of visas designed for people who have desirable job skills and education, but who do not have family members living here. By contrast, many immigrants from Latin America and Asia come to this country because they have relatives living in the United States and wish to reunite with their families.
"Our whole point in this bill is to be more flexible and open to immigrants from nations which are now short-changed by current law," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a sponsor of the bill. "By readdressing some of these imbalances, we will again open our doors to those who no longer have immediate family ties in the United States."
A key part of the legislation would have put an annual cap of 600,000 on the number of persons who could immigrate to this nation. Sponsors proposed providing 120,000 visas for persons with desirable skills and 480,000 visas to the family members of persons already living here.
Overall, the measure would increase by 100,000 the number of visas granted last year to immigrants. To keep within the 480,000 figure, however, the bill provides that the number of visas given to extended family members would decrease as the number of visas given to immediate family members increases.
Currently, there is no limit on the number of immediate family members who can be granted visas. Last year, 219,340 such persons immigrated to this country and the number is expected to rise significantly within the next 10 years.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a sponsor of the bill, said that the Senate had to make "tough choices" and that it was more important to give visas to immediate family members--including parents, spouses and minor children--than to extended family members.
Above all, Simpson said, the legislation was designed to control the number of people immigrating to the United States. The question, he said, "is how many people does this country take in? Somebody has to deal with that. I don't think the American people want unlimited immigration."
But critics said that the numerical restrictions in effect could prevent extended family members from coming to the United States. They cited a recent General Accounting Office study which estimated that, given current immigration trends, all 480,000 "family" visas would be taken up by immediate family members sometime in 1999.
"This kind of provision pits one kind of family member against another," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who won passage of an amendment guaranteeing at least 216,000 visas annually for extended family members. "That's a very profound change in our immigration policy and I don't think anybody wants that."
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) was more blunt, saying that "the conflict here is between a number and a principle. The number 600,000 didn't come from Mt. Olympus . . . it was developed by a committee. There shouldn't have to be a choice of this kind."
In their vote affecting the amnesty program for illegal aliens, senators cautioned that the new protections would be extended only to a select group. To qualify, persons would have to be the immediate family members of people who qualified for amnesty protections under the 1986 law. In addition, they would have had to have been living in this country before Nov. 6, 1986, the effective date of the legislation.
About 3 million illegal aliens were covered by the amnesty program. An aide to Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), said that about 1.5 million family members would be affected, based on several recent immigration reports made available to senators.
While allowing the relatives to stay in this country, the action would not provide full amnesty status for them. Under an amendment sponsored by Chafee, they would receive only a stay of deportation and work authorization privileges. To gain full citizenship, they would have to apply through the regular immigration system.