President Clinton yesterday endorsed the recommendations of a congressional commission calling for a substantial reduction in the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the country.
Clinton's endorsement indicated he acknowledges the public resentment of immigrants that became apparent last fall in California, which voted to deny many public services to immigrants. Until now, the movement to restrict the entry of foreigners, both legal and illegal, has been led for the most part by Republicans while the thrust of Clinton's statements has been that the government should crack down on illegal immigration but be supportive of those who enter the country legally.
The bipartisan panel, headed by former representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), has recommended gradually reducing the annual number of legal immigrants from the current level of about 830,000 to 550,000. If those recommendations were enacted into law, it would be a sharp departure from 30 years of legislation that has resulted in consistent growth in the number of immigrants allowed into the country.
Jordan said the commission did not set out to reduce the number of immigrants but arrived at the lower numbers by reordering the priority given to various categories of immigrants. And she dismissed suggestions that the commission was influenced by anti-immigrant sentiments among the public or in Congress.
Clinton and Jordan both said their aim was to reorder the priorities for legal immigration, to give greater preference to immediate family members of people who are already U.S. citizens. Even so, Clinton's endorsement came as a sharp disappointment to immigration advocacy groups, many of which had hoped the administration would block any effort to trim legal immigration.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry said he understood that some immigrant advocates are "up in arms" over the recommendation, but, "We respectfully disagree."
While endorsing the concept of the recommendations, McCurry said, the administration is "not wedded" to the specific numbers offered by the commission and would work with Congress to "refine" a specific target.
"The numerical adjustments and the limits can be achieved without causing undue distress" for would-be immigrants, he predicted.
The overwhelming endorsement given last fall by California voters to a ballot proposition that bars illegal immigrants from receiving several public services propelled the immigration issue onto the national agenda and was particularly worrisome for Democrats who consider carrying California to be critical to Clinton's reelection chances.
Yesterday, both supporters and critics of the commission's call for reduced immigration said the president's entry into the debate reflected presidential politics, a point the administration denied.
But McCurry insisted that, "I don't know that there was a lot of time spent considering" the political implications before Clinton made his decision.
The report, said Clinton, "appears to reflect a balanced immigration policy that makes the most of our diversity while protecting the American work force so that we can better compete in the emerging global economy."
The panel also called for giving higher priority to the spouses and minor children of citizens, making it much more difficult for siblings and other relatives to enter the country.
The commission also recommended greatly restricting the admission of unskilled workers and, in many cases, imposing "substantial" fees on employers who bring in foreign workers.
The fees would go to a fund used to educate and train U.S. workers so they are better able to compete in the market.
"In an age in which unskilled workers have far too few opportunities opened to them," Jordan said at a news conference, " . . . the commission sees no justification to the continued entry of unskilled foreign workers, unless the rationale for their admission serves a significant national interest, as does the admission of nuclear family members and refugees."
Clinton met briefly with Jordan yesterday, and afterward issued a statement praising the commission's report as "consistent with my own views" and a "road map for the Congress to consider." McCurry said administration officials "want to ensure, when they can, that American workers are not adversely affected by immigration numbers."
The president's support is "pivotal" in the immigration debate because it "completes the process of establishing a bipartisan consensus" on immigration reform, said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has called for even sharper reductions in immigration.
Immigrant advocacy groups said they were surprised and disappointed at Clinton's support.
"He's basically endorsing a set of recommendations which will hurt American families, American businesses and America's commitment to human rights," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "He risks alienating some of his key constituencies."