Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — Controversial provisions in a reform plan that would have reduced the number of visas granted legal immigrants Thursday were stripped from a bill to toughen laws governing illegal immigration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A reduction in visas for legal immigrants would have implications for apparel workers and their families, as well as models and others who are considered to have special skills. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees worked as part of a diverse coalition to strip the provisions from the bill.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of UNITE’s immigration project, hailed the committee’s decision as a victory for working people. UNITE was lobbying to protect a provision that provides about 450,000 visas yearly to reunite citizens and lawful permanent residents with family members abroad.
The union joined an odd alliance of manufacturers, business representatives and Christian groups in defense of immigration laws that grant visas for family reunification and employment-based needs. The visa quotas for all categories would have been reduced in the bill sponsored by Sen. Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.).
Simpson’s bill would have toughened penalties against illegal immigration by boosting border security, charging a border-crossing fee and requiring employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants by telephoning a government 800 number.
The coalition had worked diligently to separate consideration of the changes to legal immigration from illegal immigration on the grounds that the debate on illegal immigration would be so emotionally charged that legal immigration would be reduced too much.
“People thought there was a consensus that immigration had to be decreased,” Chishti said. “Today’s vote shows that’s not the case. Our country, speaking through the Judiciary Committee, still has faith in the importance of legal immigration.”
UNITE members mounted a national campaign to lobby Congress about stripping from the bill the provisions governing legal immigration. The union organized a letter campaign to members of Congress, including letters circulated for signatures in immigration classes. About 100 UNITE members came to Capitol Hill two weeks ago to lobby members of the House and Senate, while another 50 came about a month ago to visit House members.
UNITE’s efforts in the House began to pay off Thursday. The Rules Committee, which sets the rules of debate for legislation, agreed to permit the House to vote on an amendment to strip proposals changing legal immigration from the bill. The House is expected to take up its version of immigration reform next week.
The committee voted 12-6 to divide the bill. It may not be over, however, because under the division amendment, by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R., Mich.), the committee is to consider separately the provisions governing legal immigration within seven days after completing work on the illegal issues.
Simpson, who had argued vociferously to keep the legal and illegal immigrant provisions together in one bill, said Thursday’s action was meaningless because the legal provisions likely would be added back to the bill during Senate debate.
“When you’re talking illegal immigration, you can’t not talk about legal immigration,” Simpson said. “Does anyone really think that employment-based immigration isn’t going to come up? That’s called real life.”
Chishti doubted the legal changes would be considered this year because of the compressed legislative session, which has been shortened by fall elections.

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