The senators agree that a limited number of people should be allowed into the country each year; the question is who those people should be. Currently, about 65 percent of legal immigrants are admitted for family reasons and 14 percent for employment, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The rest are humanitarian cases.
Republicans would prefer to admit greater numbers of high-skilled workers, who business leaders say are in short supply and who would provide an immediate economic benefit. Democrats generally favor giving priority to family members of citizens and legal residents already in the country, saying they create support networks that help families thrive.
As it stands, spouses and minor children of citizens are given top priority, followed by unmarried children older than 21 and, lastly, married adult children and siblings. The emerging Senate proposal would eliminate the latter two categories, which add up to about 90,000 visas per year. Those people could still apply for entry to the country but would need other qualifications, such as high-tech skills, to be approved for a green card.
Senators involved in the negotiations stress that no final decision has been made. But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leader in the talks, said in an interview Thursday that tighter limits on family visas are likely.
“Right now you get green cards to adult children, to grandparents,” Graham said. “What I want to do is reserve green cards based on the economic needs of the country, and we’ll do something for families. But the goal for me is to replace a chained migration immigration system with an economic-based immigration system.”
The group of senators, which includes four Democrats and four Republicans, has said it will release a comprehensive bill in early April. The Obama administration has expressed support for the group’s general principles.
The proposed changes to the family system have angered immigration advocates, who warn that the move could threaten the chances of a broader reform agreement.
“Eliminating these categories would produce only a small reduction in visas while creating greater hardship for thousands of U.S. citizens and their loved ones,” two dozen members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus wrote in a letter to the eight senators last week. “We oppose any efforts to further limit the definition of family.”
The family visa program has been largely overshadowed by fierce public debate over a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and an expanded guest-worker program for foreigners. But changes to the family visa program, which has a waiting list of 4.3 million people, would play a pivotal role in any agreement reached by Congress and the White House.