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Of Immigrants ...

FOLLOWING the historic 1986 legislation to curb illegal immigration into the United States, the Senate has passed a bill that would make comparably major changes in the procedures for admitting legal newcomers to America's shores. The bill - which would effect the first changes in US immigration policy since 1965 - is fair and generous to those who would call the US home, while it sensibly protects the country from immigration waves that would stretch the nation's absorptive capacity.

The aim of US immigration policy in recent decades has been to facilitate family reunification for citizens and permanent residents. Most of the spouses, children, parents, and siblings thereby granted visas came from Latin America and Asia. The policy, though rightly compassionate, takes little account of America's own economic interests, and it excludes most aspiring immigrants, including many from Europe, who have no close family ties to the US.

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The Senate bill, sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy and Alan Simpson, adopts a two-track strategy for allocating visas. It preserves the emphasis on family reunification, but it also broadens opportunities for applicants with skills useful to the American economy. Departing from current policy, the bill would put a ceiling - adjustable every three years - on yearly immigration.

Despite the cap, initially 630,000 visas a year, the law would still allow unlimited entry for immediate family (spouses, minor children, parents), and - at the urging of Hispanic and Asian groups - it maintains the allowance for other close relatives at not less than the present level of 216,000 a year. In addition, the bill substantially increases, to 150,000, the annual allocation to immigrants with important job skills. This includes a new category: 54,000 visas would be granted under a point system to applicants with valuable education, training, and experience, even though no specific jobs await them.

Some critics say the cap is too high, others say it's unwarranted. To us, the carefully wrought package strikes a sound balance between safeguarding America's interests and honoring its open-door tradition. The House, which was unreceptive to a similar bill last year, should open its door.

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