House Panel Nears OK on Cuts in Legal Immigration : Congress: Limits would be first in 71 years. Influx of newcomers equals records set in first years of century.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A House committee is poised this week to approve the first major restrictions on legal immigration in 71 years.

The controversial legislation comes amid a decade in which the annual number of newcomers to the United States has matched the record totals during the first years of the century.

Until recently, the attack on immigration had focused just on those who were in this country illegally. But in June, a bipartisan study panel--led by former Democratic Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas--urged that legal immigration be reduced by 30%. Generally, only highly skilled workers and the spouses and young children of naturalized citizens should be let in, the panel said.

President Clinton quickly endorsed the recommendations, and the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee has pressed forward to craft a detailed bill.

While it is uncertain whether the legislation will become law, it is likely to set off a national debate about immigration that may well carry over into the 1996 elections.

It also raises the most basic of questions: Is immigration good for America?

Thirty years ago this month, when Congress liberalized the immigration laws and wiped away the racial quotas set in the 1920s, most Americans might have answered, "Yes."

But high rates of immigration from Third World nations, combined with economic troubles in California, have apparently changed public opinion and spurred calls for change.

A 1993 Gallup Poll, for example, found that 65% of those surveyed favored more restrictions on immigration, double the percentage saying the same in 1965. A Harris survey in 1992 found that while most Americans thought immigration was a good thing historically, 68% said that immigration now is "bad for this country."

While not bashing legal immigrants, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chief sponsor of the bill, said their numbers need to be cut.

"The cliche is true: We are a nation of immigrants. Still, America cannot admit all those who want to journey here," Smith said.

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His bill, following the Jordan Commission proposal, seeks to end the system of "chain migration" that allows new citizens--many of whom came here illegally before 1986--to bring into this country many of their relatives.

A naturalized citizen could bring in a spouse and minor children under the House bill, but not parents, siblings, adult offspring or relatives by marriage who now can be brought into the country.

This year, the law calls for the admission of about 800,000 people. Over the next five years, the House bill seeks to reduce that annual number to 585,000.

But Democratic critics on the Judiciary Committee have said that this attack on legal immigration seeks to solve a "nonexistent problem," as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it.

"I'm someone who believes legal immigration is good for this country," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who tried unsuccessfully to have the cuts in legal immigration stripped from the bill.

"These people play by the rules, make a contribution, create jobs. The Soviet Jews, the Vietnamese, Asians and Armenians--these people are part of L.A.'s strength," Berman said. "We should concentrate on wiping out illegal immigration."

Proponents of the restrictions argue that a wave of recent immigrants--legal as well as illegal--has swept over coastal states and changed them for the worse.

"We simply don't need more immigration now. The recent increases have been dramatic," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Immigrants "crowd into a handful of cities: Miami, Los Angeles and New York in particular. Those areas have very crowded housing, overcrowded schools, high costs for bilingual education. We need to take a break for 10 years so these new immigrants can be absorbed," Stein said.

Other backers believe that American workers have been hurt by cheap labor of newcomers and that the environment suffers from overpopulation.

The two sides in the debate cite an array of statistics but disagree on their significance.

In 1994, the foreign-born population of the United States hit 8.7%, the highest percentage since World War II and double the rate in 1970, the Census Bureau reported in August.

However, this percentage is small compared to the 14.7% figure of 1910. Then, four decades of heavy immigration--mostly from Europe--had reshaped the cities of the East and Midwest.

Today, California is home to one-third of the nation's foreign-born residents, the bureau said.

In 1907, immigration hit a high of 1,285,000. Today, the nation's population is nearly three times greater, and a similar number of immigrants are coming here annually.

Over the past four years, roughly 900,000 legal immigrants have arrived per year, along with an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants.

While advocates of the new restrictions on immigration have not explicitly argued for preserving the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation, that issue sits just below the surface of the debate.

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In 1921 and 1924, when Congress imposed stiff national quotas, it did so deliberately to favor Northern Europeans over others. "America must be kept American," President Calvin Coolidge said. As late as the 1950s, 68% of legal immigrants came from Europe or Canada.

The landmark 1965 immigration law, which was passed at the height of the civil rights movement, succeeded in its purpose of opening America's doors to the rest of the world. In the 1980s, only 13% of U.S. immigrants came from Europe and Canada, while 84% came from Latin America and Asia.

In 1993, the top countries from which the United States received legal immigrants were Mexico (109,027), China (65,552), the Philippines (63,189), Vietnam (59,613), the former Soviet Union (58,568), the Dominican Republic (44,886) and India (40,886).

The House committee, which has been working through dozens of minor amendments, likely will give final approval to the huge immigration bill either today or early next week. But House leaders said it would not be taken up by the full body before December. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) has said he will soon propose a similar bill in the Senate.

Both sides predict bitter fights on the House and Senate floors, and the politics are hard to gauge. To take one example, Rep. John Bryant, a liberal Texas Democrat, has strongly supported the bill in the committee, while House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a conservative Texas Republican, has voiced opposition.

Besides the lower targets for legal immigration, the bill contains other key changes. They include:

* A speeded-up system for returning thousands of people who arrive annually at the nation's airports with vague claims of needing asylum. In the 1970s, only about 200 asylum seekers arrived each year. Last year, 129,000 such people arrived at JFK International Airport in New York alone. The vast majority, set loose while a hearing is scheduled, never return.

* A toll-free 800 number for employers to check on the legal status of new workers. The idea is to have the Social Security Administration verify that a worker is a legal immigrant. "If a merchant can pick up a phone and verify a MasterCard charge for $5, I don't see why employers can't do this," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a sponsor of the provision.

* Double the number of Border Patrol agents to 5,000 and build a 14-mile-long triple fence along the Mexican border near San Diego.

* Cut the annual admission of refugees from about 110,000 per year to 50,000.

* Require sponsors of new immigrants to provide health insurance for them for up to five years, and make legally enforceable the rule that the sponsors are financially responsible. Committee aides said new immigrants often get Medicaid, Medicare or welfare benefits although the sponsors are supposed to provide for them.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sharp Rise in Legal Immigration

High immigration rates, combined with economic troubles in California, have apparently changed public opinion and spurred calls for change.

Immigration totals in 5-year intervals; in millions

1941-45: 170,952

1991-95*: 4,500,000

* Estimate

Sources: INS Statistical Yearbook, House subcommittee on immigration

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