Jews fear new restrictions may split immigrant families

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Legislation dramatically reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted into the United States is moving through Congress, prompting many American Jews to fear they may never reunite with relatives still overseas.

The immigration reform efforts come amid a continuing wave of anti-immigration sentiment, with many predicting that the issue will play a major role in next year's presidential campaign.

Activists acknowledge that stringent immigration reform legislation is probably a foregone conclusion, but they remain optimistic that improvements can be made in the bills.

"Our goal is to get it as close to current law as possible because we don't believe current law is a problem," said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation's Washington Action Office, which is leading the Jewish community's coordinated response to immigration reform.

Last week, a bill reducing legal immigration from the current level of 675,000 to 525,000 moved closer to a Senate vote when the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee voted 5-2 to send it to the full committee.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), would allow entry to 450,000 relatives of U.S. citizens. Another 75,000 immigrants would be allowed to come here to fill jobs.

In addition, the measure would bar adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens from entering the country under their relatives' sponsorship and make it more difficult for adult children to reunite with their parents.

A similar bill awaiting a vote on the House floor would cut the annual immigration total to 595,000 by the year 2001.

Although less restrictive on family immigration than the Senate version, the House bill would cap refugee admissions at 50,000 annually, representing a 55 percent reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the country each year.

That provision reminds many Jews of the S.S. St. Louis, which during WWII carried Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe and was turned away from American shores because of quotas — a memory that plumbs the core of Jewish concerns over immigration reform.

The overwhelming majority of Jews who immigrate to the United States each year from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enter the country as refugees.

Nearly 30,000 Jews are expected to enter the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1995 alone, constituting nearly 25 percent of all refugees.

Both reform bills await numerous amendments and changes before floor votes and before a final bill is hashed out in a conference committee.

In coming weeks, Jewish groups will focus their efforts on eliminating the refugee cap in the House bill and mitigating the Senate bill's more onerous restrictions on family immigration.

Both bills would make family reunification more difficult by eliminating four of five visa preference categories for: adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; adult unmarried sons and daughters of legal permanent residents; married sons and daughters of citizens; and brothers and sisters of citizens.

Eliminating these preferences will cut off 70,000 visas per year for family members attempting to reunite, affecting nearly 3 million American families now petitioning for immigrant visas, according to the CJF.

The Senate bill goes even further in restricting family immigration.

In its current form, the Senate bill would only allow entrance to parents older than 65 who have at least half their children living in the United States.

Moreover, applicants must show proof of health insurance before a visa can be issued — a restriction criticized by some as a Catch-22 because primary and long-term care is often unavailable to those residing outside the United States.

The CJF predicts that the preconditions contained in the Senate bill will likely lead to a 75 percent cutback in admissions for parents of U.S. citizens.

Advocates of immigration reform say that at a time when money is tight, the United States must take care of its own first.

Simpson, speaking before the vote in the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said, "The American people want immigration reduced."

Many immigrants, Simpson said, come to the United States simply to gain welfare and other public benefits.

Critics, meanwhile, argue that the reform proposals are an overreaction to concerns about immigration. Immigrants, they assert, contribute $25-$30 billion more in taxes than they consume in benefits.

Moreover, they say Congress has already addressed the issue of abuses of public benefits in its welfare reform legislation, recently approved by both houses.

"We've been making the case that this is a double whammy and unnecessary," Aviv said of the reform measures.

Another point of contention is Simpson's decision to join the legislation affecting legal immigration with legislation on illegal immigration. The merging of the bills, activists argue, confuses two distinct issues.

Although Jewish activists believe there is room for movement in the reform legislation, most acknowledge that they cannot envision the House or Senate bills improving to the point where they could support them.