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Immigration bill could favor skilled workers over relatives

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is helping to draft the measure, would restrict preferences to spouses and minor children, drawing criticism from Democrats.

March 15, 2013|By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is working with fellow Republicans John McCain, Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake, along with four Democrats, on immigration reform.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is working with fellow Republicans… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — An influential Republican senator involved in drafting a bipartisan immigration bill wants to lower the number of family members of U.S. citizens allowed to immigrate each year and instead increase the number of highly skilled workers.

Democrats in the group have not agreed to the approach, but Democratic Senate aides concede that it could be part of the give and take of a deal. The proposal would eliminate the current preference for admitting siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens, but leave in place the preference for spouses and minor children.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of four Republican and four Democratic senators writing the legislation, revealed Thursday that he wants to focus on getting more skilled workers into the country, and reserve family permanent resident status only for spouses and minors.

Up to 65,000 siblings and 46,800 adult children of U.S. citizens are awarded lawful permanent residence — green cards — every year. There is no limit on green cards for spouses of U.S. citizens and minor children.

The number of visas for skilled workers and immigrant investors is capped at 140,000.

Graham's position drew rebuttal Friday from some Democrats who say the family visa program should stay intact. "The line in the sand is drawn here," Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose) said in a statement.

Honda recently sent a letter to the eight senators from 24 members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus urging them not to cut family-sponsored immigration.

Graham's office did not respond Friday to requests for an interview.

Limiting the ability for extended families to immigrate "would cause tremendous hardship and heartache for thousands of U.S. citizens and their loved ones," Honda said. Such a change would disproportionately affect Asian American citizens, he said. Nearly half of the 4.3-million people in immigration backlogs are from Asia or the Pacific Islands. Asian Americans are the largest group to seek visas for adult children and siblings.

"We have a tendency to discover another one of these third rails every other week," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. "If it is not done with extreme care, the entire bill could falter," he said.

Most legal immigrants are admitted for family or humanitarian reasons, according to the institute. Job seekers make up about 15% of those awarded legal permanent residency. Republicans have long pushed to expand the number of highly skilled workers allowed in.

Along with Graham, the bipartisan group working on a reform bill includes Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. The Democrats are Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

It is unclear whether McCain, Rubio and Flake back Graham's effort to curtail family visas. The senators did not reply to requests for comment, but Senate aides stressed that no deal had been reached.

"There is no final agreement yet, so I'd caution you to not read too much into reports about what may or may not have been agreed to," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio. Rubio, widely seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, could be critical to getting other conservative senators to vote for a compromise.

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