WASHINGTON — In a major overhaul of the nation's immigration policies, the House voted Tuesday to allow an estimated 60% more visas for foreigners to legally live and work in the United States.
In addition to increasing from 500,000 to at least 775,000 the overall number of visas issued each year, the bill would create a new category for immigrants from countries whose nationals largely have been excluded because of the current emphasis on family reunification. This provision is aimed at opening the doors to more Europeans and also would allow a greater number of Africans to resettle here.
President Bush has threatened to veto the House's Family Unity and Employment Opportunity Act but supports a Senate version that would approve about 630,000 new visas each year.
The present immigration law, enacted 25 years ago, emphasized family reunification to such a degree that about 85% of visas went to Asians and Latin Americans. As a result, nationals from 30 countries in Europe and elsewhere found their names far down priority waiting lists.
The bill perpetuates the current emphasis on family unity--and in fact increases the number of family-related visas. But it increases opportunities for other groups not only through the new visa category, but by increasing the number of employment-related visas.
The total cap of about 775,000 does not include those who enter the country as refugees.
During a day and a half of often contentious debate, opponents painted the bill as a congressional gift to special interest groups that cater to minority and immigrant issues, at the expense of American workers.
"We can reach down and train our workers or take in large numbers of immigrants," pleaded Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who led the floor fight against the bill. "We can't do both."
But supporters argued that the legislation would allow more American citizens to be reunited with their foreign-born families, and at the same time entice eager and ambitious future taxpayers.
Calling immigrants "self-selected strivers," Rep. Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.), a key supporter, said that passage would be "the most far-reaching and important reform of our legal immigration policy."
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would add $57 million to the budget deficit in 1991 and $210 million in 1992, in part because of mandatory entitlements such as welfare payments, Medicaid and unemployment insurance.
The net cost figures include estimates that the bill would raise $60 million in 1991 and $110 million by 1994 by charging employers who sponsor immigrants. That money is to be used for retraining and educating U.S. workers.
Critics of the bill complained that it would prove disastrous to the nation, flooding the country with more people than the economy can absorb.
But supporters of the legislation hailed its passage, while pledging to continue to press for its enactment into law.
A conference committee to iron out differences in House and Senate versions is expected to begin next week. It is unclear if the committee will be able to reconcile the two bills before Congress adjourns later this month.
The House version passed Wednesday, 231 to 192. The Senate bill passed last year, 87 to 17.
Currently, there is no limit on the number of visas issued to spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens. However, a cap that allows no more than 20,000 immigrants from any one country effectively limited the number of immediate relatives who could join their families in the United States.
The new bill would remove the per country cap on numbers of immigrants. Legislators do not expect an immediate increase in the number of family visas, under which about 220,000 people immigrate annually. However, the removal of the cap likely will increase the figures when illegal alien workers under the amnesty program begin receiving citizenship in 1993.
More distant relatives, for example adult siblings and their spouses, would be in line to receive 300,000 visas under the bill--up from the current 216,000.
The new category allows for 55,000 "diversity" visas each year for natives of regions where immigration has been lower than 50,000 over the previous five years. The nations considered "adversely affected" by the current law are primarily European. Under the provision, Ireland and Northern Ireland are considered separate nations--indicating that the Irish will get a disproportionate share of the visas in this category.
Moreover, the bill provides temporary redress by providing 25,000 additional visas in this category for three years. Another 15,000 visas will be temporarily set aside for East European refugees. Finally, the continent of Africa, which has a low history of immigration to the United States, gets an additional 15,000 visas during the same period.
The bill would also increase the number of work-related visas from the current limit of about 54,000 for permanent workers to 65,000 in 1992.