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Regild the Golden Door

LAST year the Senate passed a sweeping reform of US law governing legal immigration, unchanged since 1965. Now the House of Representatives has before it a counterpart bill. Time is short, but we hope that, before the lawmakers adjourn, the House will pass the immigration bill and reconcile it with the Senate's version. In this year when America is honoring the achievements of past immigrants with the new Ellis Island museum, it also needs to overhaul admission policies that are out of sync with the nation's current economic needs.

The House and Senate bills have several principles in common. Both preserve the 1965 law's primary objective, which is to unite the families of America's newest members (most of whom come from Latin American and Asia). Both measures go far beyond the '65 law, however, in recognizing the US's need for skilled workers from abroad who don't have family ties to this country. And both bills would admit more newcomers from countries that were disadvantaged by the '65 law, mainly in Europe and Africa.

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But the two proposals have notable differences:

Ceilings. HR 4300 would raise the number of immigration visas from the current 540,000 a year to about 775,000; S 358 would stop at 630,000 a year.

Family members vs. skilled workers. Though both bills give priority to family unification, the Senate places relatively more weight on admitting workers with training and skills to fill empty jobs and enhance US competitiveness.

Rules for skilled immigrants. Under HR 4300, employers would identify visa applicants whose skills they need; US unions would have a chance to challenge employers' assertions that the jobs couldn't be filled by American workers; and companies hiring immigrants would pay a fee of up to $1,000 per hire, which would go into a fund for retraining American workers. Under S 358, in addition to visa applicants already with jobs, some skilled workers without jobs would be admitted under a point system.

Though significant, these differences aren't insurmountable. The best law might include elements from both bills, such as the Senate's point system for some skilled applicants and the House's greater allocation of ``diversity'' visas to countries like Ireland and Eastern European nations.

Those are details. Both measures, by basing immigration policy on a combination of compassion for families and the nation's long-term economic interests, are headed in the right direction. It would be a shame if the press of other business or inter-chamber squabbling prevented the enactment of this much-needed reform.

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