Immigration Cutback Urged by U.S. Panel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Efforts in Congress to limit the flow of foreigners into the United States got a boost Wednesday, when a bipartisan federal commission said that the number of immigrants admitted to the country should be cut and that it should be more difficult for their extended families to join them once they are here.

The White House immediately signaled its support for the far-reaching proposals.

The commission, headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), urged Congress to pass legislation that would reduce the annual ceiling on legal immigrants by about one-third, from the 800,000 admitted in 1994 to 550,000 in several years.

While it recommended speeding up admission of legal immigrants' immediate family members--spouses, young children and parents--it proposed ending the traditional visa preferences given to brothers, sisters and adult children.

And in an effort to protect American workers against competition from immigrant labor, the panel also recommended barring entry of unskilled workers for employment purposes and imposing a steep fee on American employers who want to hire skilled professionals from abroad.

"Immigrants admitted through a well-regulated system strengthen the United States," said Jordan, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "We recognize, however, that there are costs as well as benefits to legal immigration."

Many on Capitol Hill welcomed the proposals. But, for Republicans, they are likely to emphasize divisions within their ranks between those who want to limit immigration and those who see the influx of foreigners as an important boost to the economy.

Shortly after Jordan unveiled the recommendations, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that President Clinton would support the proposed new restrictions on the numbers and types of immigrants allowed into the United States.

In a statement, Clinton said: "Consistent with my own views, the commission's recommendations are pro-family, pro-work, pro-naturalization."

Clinton's endorsement of the Jordan commission's recommendations poses some political risks because he may alienate Latino groups and other Democratic constituencies who vehemently oppose new restrictions and accused the panel of bowing to political pressure from burgeoning anti-immigration forces.

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, said that the proposals would "slam the door on Americans who wish to reunite with their closest family members."

Illegal immigration has been a hotly contested issue in California, where voters in 1994 overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187, which denies some public benefits to illegal immigrants. And the political battle also has included legal immigrants who are not citizens, who face cutoffs of some federal funds if a House welfare overhaul proposal becomes law.

The panel will make recommendations later on temporary workers, but it warned Wednesday against establishing a large-scale agricultural guest-worker program, as some growers have urged Congress to do.

"We unanimously and strongly believe that such a program would be a grievous mistake," Jordan said.

The nine-member immigration commission, which was established in 1990 by Congress to advise it on the divisive, emotion-charged issue, in September issued another set of recommendations to crack down on illegal immigration, including a much-disputed computer registry to allow employers to check the immigration status of job applicants.

The new proposals on legal immigration come as Congress gears up to draft broad legislation to rein in both legal and illegal immigration.

Under the panel's recommendations, the annual cap on legal immigrants eventually would be set at 550,000--down from the 800,000 admitted in 1994. Of the 550,000, about 400,000 would be admitted for family reasons, 100,000 for jobs and about 50,000 as refugees. During a transition period that could last more than five years, however, the ceiling would be 700,000 to allow for the elimination of a large backlog of spouses and minor children of immigrants who are awaiting admission to the United States.

The allocation of 100,000 visas for people admitted on the basis of their job skills would be down from the 140,000 ceiling now in place. In proposing the elimination of visas for unskilled workers, the commission said:

"We see little justification for admitting unskilled foreign workers into an economy that must find job opportunities for millions of unskilled U.S. workers."

To control immigration of skilled workers, the commission proposed allowing only foreigners to be admitted who hold at least a bachelor's degree in areas where it is clear that the American labor market could not satisfy need.

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this story.

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