The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a major immigration reform bill that would increase the number of people let into the United States each year while trying to balance concerns over keeping families together with business demands for more high-skilled workers.
Called a blueprint for a "progressive and generous immigration policy" by its sponsor, Rep. Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.), the bill would grant about 250,000 additional visas a year to immigrants, bringing the total to about 775,000 in addition to refugees and other special groups. It was approved 23 to 12.
"Sensible rules for coming here will keep a lot of people from cheating on nonsensible laws," Morrison said.
The bill, a version of which cleared the Senate last year, sets up a two-track system for granting visas that follows the landmark 1965 immigration law in its preferences for family members, but also attempts to make the United States more competitive in the global marketplace by awarding a second category of visas according to skill and education levels.
One provision aimed at lessening the threat of immigrants replacing Americans in the job market is a tax on employers hiring foreign-born workers that would go to paying for job training for native-born workers.
Nevertheless Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), the chief critic of the bill, said that a more liberal immigration policy would result in fewer jobs, lower wages and more crime.
"America cannot accommodate everyone who wants to come here," he said in opposing the bill but arguing for less family preferences. "The question really is about the quality of life in the United States. Increased immigration is not fair to our own workers and the American taxpayers."
A controversial amendment, restoring an earlier provision removed to ease passage, rekindled some of the strong emotions from the debate over the 1986 immigration bill which granted amnesty to illegal aliens while instituting a system of employer sanctions designed to curtail further illegal immigration.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) won approval of an amendment that prevents the United States from deporting spouses and children of illegal immigrants who have received amnesty or qualify for it. Currently the government allows family members not covered under the amnesty program who arrived before 1986 to stay in the country until they can apply for legal status.
The Berman amendment extends the cutoff date to the first of this year.
Critics called it a "second amnesty" that would draw more illegal immigrants into the United States.
Nevertheless, the bill has won support from organized labor, as well as conservative think tanks and liberal immigration rights groups.
"It generally promotes the notion that immigrants are good for American society," said Cecilia Munoz, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council for La Raza.