WASHINGTON -- Congress began an ambitious effort yesterday to rewrite immigration policy as House Republicans offered legislation to reduce the numbers of aliens -- legal and illegal -- who settle in the United States.
The chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said at a news conference that generations of immigrants had contributed "work, creativity and vibrancy" to the nation. But it is time to "put the interests of America first -- the interests of the American worker, the American taxpayer and the American family," he said.
Mr. Smith is chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims. The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, John Bryant of Texas, endorsed the bill, saying it would reduce the displacement of U.S. workers by cheap labor from abroad.
Similar legislation to be taken up by the Senate has substantial backing there, and Mr. Smith predicted that the Clinton administration would support much of his bill because it echoes a federal advisory commission's recommendations, which President Clinton has generally endorsed.
The commission, headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan of HTC Texas, has called for substantial reductions in the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the country.
Some of the major provisions of the bill:
* Legal immigration would be reduced by about a third, to 535,000 people a year.
* The number of refugees, those admitted into the country because of a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands, would be cut by half, to 50,000 a year.
* A new requirement would be imposed on employers to verify that job applicants are eligible to work in the United States. Employers would have to call the government to check the authenticity of applicants' Social Security numbers. But the bill would not create a national identification card, a proposal advanced from time to time for more than a decade as a way of verifying employment eligibility.
* The strength of the Border Patrol would be doubled, to 10,000 agents.
* A barrier along a 14-mile stretch of the Mexican border near San Diego would be bolstered with the construction of two fences, in addition to the one already there.
* Any foreigner who illegally entered the United States could be fined $50 to $250.