CONGRESS soon will consider a bill that will benefit American families, workers, and taxpayers. It's the Immigration in the National Interest Act, which has significant bipartisan support. Citizens have every right to expect Congress to put the national interest first and secure our borders, protect lives, unite families, create jobs, and ease the burden on hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers.
Of course we are a nation of immigrants, and our generosity toward immigrants will continue. But our current immigration laws are broken and must be fixed. When 40 percent of the births in the public hospitals of our most-populous state, California, are to illegal aliens; when the number of illegal aliens entering our country every three years could populate a city the size of Boston or Dallas or San Francisco; when half of the 5 million illegal aliens in the US today use fraudulent documents to illegally obtain jobs and welfare benefits, it's not a problem, it's a crisis. When immigrant husbands or wives and their young children are forced to wait 10 years to be united; when one-quarter of all federal prisoners are foreign-born; when one-quarter of legal immigrants are on welfare, it's not a problem, it's a crisis. The crisis must be faced and solved.
We must put the national interest first. This means both reducing illegal immigration and reforming legal immigration. For illegal immigration, it means increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and reducing the attraction of the twin magnets of easily available jobs and easy access to welfare benefits. For legal immigration, it means giving priority to uniting spouses and their children and discouraging immigrants from living off the taxpayer.
Those who are unwilling to address the crisis in legal immigration cannot be taken seriously when they say they want to cut illegal immigration. Almost half of the illegal aliens in the United States entered legally on temporary visas, then overstayed. We cannot hope to reduce illegal immigration unless we're willing to address the problems in our legal immigration system.
There is widespread and bipartisan support for immigration reform. The Immigration in the National Interest Act, HR 2202, was approved by the Judiciary Committee 23 to 10 and has 120 cosponsors. The bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform, which was chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, endorsed the need to put the national interest first. And President Clinton recently affirmed his commitment to immigration reform. ''Legal immigration must be based upon principles that are pro-family, pro-work, and pro-naturalization, retaining opportunities for family reunification as the levels are lowered,'' he wrote in response to an Associated Press survey of presidential candidates.
Most important, the American people want immigration reform. For the last 20 years, every public opinion survey taken on the subject shows that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of age, sex, political- party identification, or ethnic background, wants our immigration system fixed.
The approach to this task embodied in the immigration bill is not without critics. They assert, for instance, that the act will slash legal immigration. But under HR 2202, an average of 700,000 immigrants will be admitted each year for the next five years. With the exception of the years following the one-time amnesty for illegal aliens in 1986, when nearly 3 million were legalized, this bill will allow the highest levels of legal immigration in the last 70 years.
Others say the number of refugees will be cut in half. But of the 90,000 refugees who will be admitted this year, 70,000 are part of the former Soviet Union and Indo-Chinese resettlement programs that are coming to an end. HR 2202, in accordance with the recommendations of the State Department, establishes a target of 50,000 after two years. This is to maintain a generous level for refugees, which otherwise might be lower.
Some have charged that HR 2202 is anti-family since it eliminates preferences for adult brothers and sisters and some adult children. But with millions of immigrants backlogged, priorities must be set. The number of extended-family members is reduced in order to double the number of spouses and minor children admitted, which will cut their wait in half.
Will the act establish a national computer registry and/or national ID card, as still others have charged? No. Employers call the Social Security Administration to check an employee's Social Security number after they are hired. There is no new database or card; only existing information is used. This will both discourage the use of fraudulent documents and save jobs for citizens.
The American people know that the wrong kind of immigration penalizes families and depresses wages. Citizens and legal residents, especially the 17 million unemployed and underemployed, are forced to compete directly with immigrants for scarce jobs. Regrettably, those who live in urban areas are hurt most. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states, ''Immigration accounts for about 50 percent of the decline in real wages for the lowest-skilled workers.''
To fix these and other problems, the Immigration in the National Interest Act unites immediate families much more quickly than does current law, protects jobs by checking an employee's eligibility to work, and saves taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year by giving preference to those immigrants and their families who are more likely to work, produce, and contribute.
America's generosity toward immigrants will continue. But Congress has every right to set priorities and to do what's best for American families, workers, and taxpayers. We cannot afford a broken immigration system. Congress must act now to put the national interest first.