December 1996 Volume 3 Number 12
Legal Immigration Changes?
Legal immigration is expected to return as a major issue in the 105th Congress, which begins its work in January 1997. Current law anticipates the admission of 675,000 immigrants each year within numerically limited categories. Although about 900,000 legal immigrants in all categories were admitted in FY96, plus an additional 100,000 asylum seekers and parolees. An estimated 200,000 US citizens and immigrants emigrate every year.
The extremes in the new Congress are marked by proponents of the status quo, and those who advocate a moratorium that would halt all legal immigration except for the immediate families of US citizens.
The bipartisan US Commission on Immigration Reform, established by the 1990 Immigration Act, will issue its final recommendations in September 1997. The CIR in June 1995 recommended that the basic legal immigration system remain in place, but that the entry of nuclear families be speeded up by awarding the immigration slots now available to the adult brothers and sisters of US citizens to immediate relatives.
The CIR also recommended that the number of slots for immigrants requested by US employers be reduced and that US employers demonstrate that they looked for US workers by paying a fee into a fund that would be used to train Americans who could eventually fill the jobs now done by foreigners.
The President endorsed the CIR's recommendation for a lowering of the overall number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the country annually, but negated that endorsement in March 1996, when his administration backed efforts to separate legal and illegal immigration proposals in Congress. The death of the Chairman of the Commission, former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), in January 1996, is widely seen as a factor in the Clinton administration's change of heart.
The three major doors through which legal immigrants enter the US are:
Family Unification. Congressional critics of the current law assert that chain migration rather than US needs is increasing the number of immigrants admitted to the US for family reasons. The US admits without limit spouses and minor children of US citizens, so that the current naturalization wave is expected to increase immediate family immigration.
After immediate families of US citizens, the US has four family immigration preferences: the parents of US citizens, the immediate families of US immigrants and the adult brothers and sisters of US citizens.
There are lengthy backlogs in these categories. The CIR recommended a trade off, more slots to speed up the unification of immediate families of legal immigrants and the elimination of slots for brothers and sisters.
In an effort to head off a debate over reducing legal immigration, Empower America in November 1996 released, "In Defense of a Nation: The Military Contributions of Immigrants," a report that argues that immigration increases national security by adding to the US population, by adding scientists who develop military technology and through individual acts of heroism by newcomers in the armed forces. The report was released at a press conference attended by a Mexican immigrant who won a silver star fighting in Vietnam.
Employment. The major bill in the House in 1996 would have reduced the number of immigrants admitted annually for economic/employment reasons from 140,000 annually to 135,000(including dependents), while the Senate bill would have reduced the number to 90,000. Both bills would have reformed the H-1B program, which admits a maximum 65,000 professional temporary foreign workers each year, each for up to six years.
Business groups, especially high-tech companies such as Microsoft, opposed any changes to the economic/employment-based immigration system.
Refugees. The US adopted the UN definition of a refugee in 1980: a refugee is a person outside her country of citizenship with a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The 1980 act anticipated the normal arrival of 50,000 refugees each year and pledged the federal government to reimburse states for the welfare and other costs associated with resettling refugees.
Non-Immigrants. Some 22 million foreigners enter the US every year, most for short-term tourist or business visits. However, about 650,000 are admitted each year for US jobs or to study in the US. Many of these non-immigrants are authorized to remain in the US for three to 10 years and many find ways to become permanent residents.
Population Impacts. About one-third of US population growth is due to immigration and, if the US-born and US-citizen children of recent immigrants are included, immigration accounts for more than half of US population growth, according to the Census Bureau.
Immigration is increasing the size of the current and future population. In 1989, the Census Bureau projected that the US population, 265 million in 1996, would level off at 300 million in 2050. The most recent projections suggest that the US population will be 400 million in 2050. About 93 percent of the population growth in the year 2050 will result from immigration that has occurred since 1991.
In 1994, there were more Hispanic than Black babies born in the US--17 percent of the 3.9 million babies born were Hispanic, compared to 16 percent Black, five percent Asian and 62 percent non-Hispanic white. Hispanics are expected to surpass Blacks as the largest US minority population in 2005.
William Branigin, "Immigration Issues Await New Congress," Washington Post, November 18, 1996. Anna Borgman, "The Noncitizen-Soldier: Mexican-Born Hero of Vietnam Becomes a Symbol in Fight for Immigrants' Rights," Washington Post, November 8, 1996. Frank Trejo, Alfredo Corchado, "Immigration debate rages on," Dallas Morning News, November 6, 1996. Deborah Billings, "Return of immigration debate likely," Daily Labor Report, November 4, 1996.