SOON AFTER THE Christmas recess, Congress will have to grapple seriously with the problem of immigration reform. It will be taking on such thorny subjects as 1)an overall limitation on the number of immigrants, 2)what to do about undocumented workers already living in the United States, and 3)the difficult moral and economic questions regarding various nations' responsibilities for the world's refugees. The administration has sent Congress its own comprehensive package of reforms, and the Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, created by Congress in 1979, has also proposed substantial amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Naturally, there is no unanimity concerning what to do. Experts and government officials do agree, however, on the issues that need to be addressed, and there appears, for the moment anyhow, to be a general air of good will and determination to approach the complicated subject as a coherent whole.
Because the job is so important and difficult in human, not just national policy, terms, a comprehensive revision of the act will require certainly months or maybe years of work. So it is encouraging that Congress has excerpted from this morass of emotionally charged choices a few less controversial amendments and proceeded to deal with them in a separate bill that could be passed fairly quickly.
This proposal (HR 4327), which got through the House recently and is now ready for action by the full Senate, addresses some quirks and anachronisms in the law that have long been in need of cleaning up. It would, for instance, eliminate the Draconian provision in the act that permanently bars from this country any person convicted of a single offense involving possession of marijuana. The bill would not grant admission to drug traffickers or even to multiple offenders. It would simply allow the attorney general to grant a waiver allowing admission to persons once convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use--and only if these petitioners were immediate relatives of American citizens or permanent residents. Such a measure could eliminate the welter of private bills introduced each year to reunite families in cases where the prospective immigrant has been found guilty of what would be considered a minor offense in this country.
The bill would also raise the legal age for adoption of aliens by American citizens from 14 to 16--another change that has in the past been accomplished by the tedious passage of private legislation--and would eliminate an injustice visited upon a small group of alien doctors, fully qualified and living and practicing in the United States. These doctors would have been required to leave the country for failure to take a qualifying test by January 1978, even though that test was not available to be taken until September 1977. Doctors now entering the United States must take and pass the test, but those already practicing on Jan. 9, 1978, would be allowed to stay.
The final reason this bill should appeal to all members of Congress is that it would save the taxpayers money. Eliminating the requirement that all aliens register every year and substituting a simple notification procedure for change of address, for example, would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, result in savings of $800,000 a year. Other provisions eliminating paperwork at the INS are expected to produce total budget savings of $2.5 million a year.