Closing the Door, a Little

FEW topics stir more emotions than immigration. California's Proposition 187, designed to deny benefits to illegal immigrants, turned up the heat under the issue last November. And it's likely the "porous borders" theme will stay hot through next year's presidential race.

Amid the swirl of emotions, Congress is accelerating efforts to rework, yet again, the nation's immigration laws. Bills are moving forward in both the Senate and House, and with reform-minded Republicans in charge, passage of new legislation could come before year's end.

That quicker pace in Congress impelled the Commission on Immigration Reform, which was chartered by Congress, to issue another of its preliminary reports this week.

Its recommendations on legal immigration represent a modest response to a growing popular desire to at least partly close America's open door. The target of bringing legal immigration down to 550,000 a year is only 50,000 or so below the levels that prevailed in the early 1980s, and about one-third less than last year's legal immigration total.

The commission would accomplish this primarily by removing visa preferences for siblings and grown children of legal immigrants, a step already incorporated in some bills before Congress. It's possible the commissioners may have opted for these restrictions in hopes of fending off much stronger ones, which could emerge in the current political climate.

That climate is generated by the continuing - and perhaps deepening, given Mexico's woes - problem of illegal immigration. The commission addressed that problem in recommendations released last fall. It recognized that controlling the number of illegals is impossible without a better means of identification at the work site. But any move toward a national ID card raises deep civil-liberties concerns. Other options include a phone verification based on a Social Security number. That may work, though it will require integrating Social Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service data - not an easy job.

Pragmatic concerns ranging from job competition to strains on public services drive the immigration debate. So do nativist fears about racially and culturally different newcomers. Cool-headed judgment is badly needed, and the commission is to be thanked for providing some.

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