WASHINGTON — THE United States may soon be a less welcoming place for legal immigrants.
New moves are afoot to curtail almost all categories of legal immigration, from the extended family members of those already here to refugees from the world's political troubles.
In the latest development, a federal commission has issued a long-awaited recommendation that overall legal immigration be reduced from 675,000 to 550,000 per year. Visas for unskilled workers would be eliminated, per the proposals of the US Commission on Immigration Reform.
Legislation now working its way through Congress would make similar reductions. Taken together, these efforts would represent the largest change to US immigration policy in more than 40 years.
''The commission is convinced that our current immigration system must undergo major reform to ensure that admissions continue to serve our national interests,'' former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas, head of the panel, wrote in the report. ''Hence, the commission recommends a significant redefinition of priorities and a reallocation of existing admission numbers to fulfill more effectively the objectives of our immigration system.''
Immigration change would not come without controversy. Migrant-rights groups aren't the only people who oppose further restrictions - some US experts and politicians, such as House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas, consider legal immigration an engine of economic growth.
Thus the panel's recommendations - coming at a time when immigration, both legal and illegal, is a hot-button political issue - are likely to stir debate on Capitol Hill.
Under the commission's recommendations, overall total immigration for three core categories would be cut: Nuclear-family immigration would be reduced to 400,000, skill-based immigration would come down to 100,000, and refugee resettlement would be set at 50,000, down from the current flexible level of 50,000 to 100,000 per year (though, the commission adds, exceptions could be made for emergencies).
Perhaps the most contentious move proposed by the Jordan commission would be a tightening of the definition of family for the purpose of immigration sponsorship.
The report recommends eliminating ''family preference'' categories that allow US citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their adult sons and daughters, and allow US citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters.
''We are appalled that this country would consider changing the definition of family to exclude adult children, and to exclude siblings,'' says Cecilia Munoz, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic organization. ''This is not consistent with the American view of the family.''
A member of the commission, Warren Leiden, also took exception with the elimination of some family unification. He proposed allowing unused visas from higher-priority categories to ''spill down'' to lower categories, thus allowing at least some adult children and siblings to immigrate.
He also takes issue with the overall targets of immigration reduction, suggesting that a current program that promotes diversity be eliminated and that its 55,000 visas be used for family immigration.
The commission cites three reasons for narrowing the definition of family: to reduce waiting time for closer family members without raising overall immigration; to remove ''extraordinary backlogs that now undermine the credibility of our policy''; and to support the immigration of people who will contribute skills to the US economy, defined as a compelling national interest.
Legislation working its way through both houses of Congress would also cut overall legal immigration levels and narrow the definition of family.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, approved by a House Judiciary Subcommittee in July, is scheduled to go before the full Judiciary Committee on Sept. 19, though some Republican leaders (including majority leader Armey) oppose reductions in legal immigration.
On Sept. 13, Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming unveils his own immigration reform bill, and holds hearings on it.
Austin immigration lawyer Matt Trevena is troubled by the political posturing over America's newcomers. Hot-button issues like immigration, affirmative action, and English-only are code words for racism, he charges.
Mr. Smith defends the importance of visas for unskilled workers, a category that the commission would eliminate. Texas farmers and ranchers depend on such workers, he says. Smith scoffs at the notion of finding Americans to fill those jobs.
The guest workers are people ''you can be sure will show up every Monday morning and do exactly what needs to be done,'' Mr. Trevena says. Even Newt Gingrich calls for a guest-worker program in his book ''To Renew America.''