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Senate group considers change in family visas as part of immigration deal

Key senators are developing plans that would make it harder for U.S. citizens to get visas for their family members while easing the path for more high-skilled foreign workers, according to aides and advocates familiar with negotiations over an emerging immigration deal.

The plans – which would run counter to policies that have been in place for generations – are part of ongoing talks between a bipartisan group of eight senators, whose bill is expected to serve as the template for a comprehensive immigration deal between Congress and the White House.

The senators agree that a limited number of people should be allowed into the country each year; the question is who those people should be. Currently, about two-thirds of legal immigrants are admitted for family reasons and 14 percent for employment, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The rest are humanitarian cases.

Republicans would prefer to admit greater numbers of high-skilled workers, who business leaders say are in short supply and who would provide an immediate economic benefit. Democrats generally favor giving priority to family members of citizens and legal residents already in the country, saying they provide support networks that help families thrive.

As it stands, spouses and minor children of citizens are given top priority, followed by unmarried children over 21 and, lastly, married adult children and siblings. The Senate proposal would eliminate the latter two categories altogether, which add up to about 90,000 visas per year. Those people could still apply for entry into the country but would need other qualifications, such as high-tech skills, to be approved for a green card.

Senators involved in the negotiations stress no final decision has been made. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a leader in the talks, said in an interview yesterday that “we’re going to change fundamentally the immigration system,” including tighter limits on family visas.

“Right now you get green cards to adult children, to grandparents,” Graham said. “What I want to do is reserve green cards based on the economic needs of the country, and we’ll do something for families. But the goal for me is to replace a chained migration immigration system with an economic-based immigration system.”

The group of senators, which includes four Democrats and four Republicans, has said it will release a comprehensive bill in early April. The Obama administration has expressed support for the group’s general principles.

The proposed changes to the family system have angered immigration advocates, who warn the move could threaten the chances of a broader reform agreement.

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