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United States: Debate Over Reducing Legal Immigration Heats Up

Washington, 26 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is increasingly considering whether it should reduce the number of immigrants it admits legally each year.

Calls for restricting the number of legal immigrants -- or at least revising the process for choosing who is admitted -- have grown over recent months. New statistics from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) show legal immigration increasing about 25 percent this year compared to last. Today, some one million immigrants, including refugees, enter the United States annually, about twice the number of two decades ago.

Analysts say that the surge in legal immigration is due to longstanding immigration rules which permit new citizens and permanent residents to unify their families by obtaining immigrant visas for their immediate relatives. Those relatives can later bring in their immediate relatives.

The present surge of immigration largely began last decade, when Washington granted legal status to more than 2.5 million illegal aliens already in the country, setting off an ever-expanding chain-reaction of visas to family members.

The influx has raised concerns among some legislators that, unless slowed, immigration in all forms could give the United States a much larger population in the next century than previously expected. The U.S. Census Bureau originally calculated at the beginning of this decade that the American population, now about 265 million, would level off at about 300 million by the year 2050. Today, the Census Bureau forecasts the United States population in 2050 will reach nearly 400 million, with almost all of that population growth resulting from immigration that has occurred after 1991.

Such statistics led one legislator, Representative Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif) to warn two months ago that far from leveling off, the United States population "will continue to grow unabated into the late 21st century."

Analysts say the debate over whether to reform the laws governing legal immigration is likely to begin in earnest when Congress reconvenes next year. The previous Congress attempted to tackle the issue -- always a politically sensitive one -- but decided not to pursue it in an election year. Instead, it passed a new immigration law last year aimed just at reducing the rate of illegal immigration, which averages some 300,000 people annually.

The coming debate over legal immigration policy will focus on how many, and what kind of, immigrants America wants.

Critics of the U.S.'s current legal immigration policy argue that, by favoring the admission of relatives, it deprives the United States of highly skilled visa applicants without a family already in the country. They note that in a typical year fewer than 20 percent of immigrants now enter under "employment-based" criteria. The critics want the United States to move toward the Canadian model, which encourages well-educated immigrants who can take jobs not filled by qualified Canadians.

But when a U.S. government commission last year proposed cutting back on visas for some categories of relatives, it was strongly attacked by immigrant groups whose families benefit from the current law.

Complicating the issue further is a debate over whether America should seek to balance the number of immigrants it receives from different countries. During the last 30 years, half of America's immigrants -- legal and illegal combined -- have come from just seven countries in Central America and Asia. Among these, Mexico has provided more immigrants than any of the others.

Critics of current immigration policy say it is skewing immigration in favor of the United States' Spanish-speaking neighbors. They say it risks creating such a large Spanish-speaking community in the United States that it might not assimilate linguistically and culturally into the mainstream.

As those objections have been countered with charges of racism, all indications are that America's debate of legal immigration will be long and volatile.