THE United States may soon become a much less welcoming place for legal immigrants.
More foreigners are entering this country to make a new life, legally, than at any other time this century. But newly proposed rules for who gets to live in America, if adopted, would usher in the the biggest changes to US immigration policy in the post-war era.
The sweeping recommendations by a bipartisan, federal advisory commission would have the effect of reducing legal immigration by about one half over five years, from last year's high of 1.1 million to 550,000. They would also place greater emphasis on immigration by immediate family members - spouses, children, and parents - of current legal residents and citizens.
So-called "chain migration," in which large extended families of siblings and more distant relations gain admittance to the US, would be targeted for curtailment under panel suggestions.
"This is historic, without question," says Harold Ezell, a member of the Commission on Immigration Reform and a former federal immigration official.
"Both sides of Congress have asked what a bipartisan panel would find if they studied the issue in detail. Now, a group which could not be any more diverse is telling them. What they do remains to be seen," he says.
After three years of listening to citizens of every stripe from Miami to Los Angeles, the immigration commission is due to unveil these conclusions and other detailed findings June 7 on the steps of the US Capitol.
Because the commission was created by Congress and in 1990, its long-awaited recommendations will become the starting point for a new debate that could spur major congressional action - and spill into the 1996 presidential race.
If adopted, the rules would in three to eight years remove a backlog of about 1.1 million visa applications already filed by permanent, resident aliens to achieve entry for their spouses or minor children still outside the country. Under current law, those would-be immigrants would take 10 years to admit, a time span the commission says keeps families apart too long.
But the proposals would also halt admission preferences long granted to close relatives and siblings of US citizens, who, the commission feels, should not obtain visas unless they qualify because of job skills.
"The commission is going after the linchpin of the chain-migration process, those critical, family linkages which create the enormous multiplier effects," says Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group that wants to reduce immigration rates.
All told, the total number of admissions should drop by 15 percent from recent averages to about 700,000 per year for a brief, as yet designated, transition.
After that, no more than 550,000 annually should achieve entry, the approved recommendations say. "By moving their recommendations to the legislative table while this issue is hot in the public eye, they will have a profound impact on the future course of debate in this country," says Mr. Stein.
FUELED by high immigration rates - foreign entrants to the US last year reached 1.1 million, the highest since 1907 - public concern about the effects of both legal and illegal immigration on jobs, crime, trade, and social services is growing, polls show. Besides a California ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly in November, denying illegals some social services, the US House in March approved a bill denying welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid to some legal immigrants.
The commission's five-year mandate has been to examine every facet of immigration. In September, it released controversial findings on illegal immigration. Now its latest findings are stirring debate, too.
"This is definitely a major step toward getting the country to move a key debate center stage," says Mark Kerkorian, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.