SALT LAKE CITY — Family-based immigration could give way to more green cards being issued for job-related or economic needs under some reform proposals being discussed among U.S. senators.
But without any legislation on the table, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said it's difficult to know what his colleagues have in mind, particularly Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
"I don't think Sen. Graham or anyone else is arguing that we ought to eliminate family-based immigration standards," Lee said. "I think he's just talking about how we can make that more efficient so that we can have a legal immigration system that is more able to adequately supply our demand for labor."
Senators writing a comprehensive immigration bill may dramatically limit green cards for extended families of U.S. citizens, reserving them for immediate family members instead.
Graham, who is part of a bipartisan Senate group negotiating the bill, said last week the aim is to remake the immigration system so it has a much clearer economic focus.
"Green cards are economic engines for the country," he said. "This is not a family court we're dealing with here. We're dealing about an economic need."
Lee said he doesn't disagree there are unmet needs regarding employment visas.
"How best we get there is a different question. I'll have to answer that once I see what exactly he's proposing," he said.
Graham could be talking about changing the ratios of family-based and employment-based immigration, Lee said. He also might be referring to whether to extend visas to married children and siblings of adults who have become lawful permanent residents or limit them to spouses and unmarried children.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said it's premature to comment on the issue because a bill has yet to come forward.
“Sen. Hatch is looking forward to a thorough review of all of the issues related to our immigration system," according to spokesman Matthew Harakal.
The Senate's bipartisan "gang of eight" is working to unveil legislation in April.
But Hatch and Lee are among six GOP members on the Senate Judiciary Committee who signed a letter Wednesday asking chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to extend the time period devoted to consideration of any comprehensive immigration reform proposal.
Lee was initially part of the "gang of eight" negotiating immigration reform but pulled out when the group's guiding principles included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. He said Congress needs to secure the border and implement a better entry/exit tracking system before tackling other immigration problems.
Meantime, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voiced support Tuesday for the work of eight lawmakers — four Republicans, for Democrats — who have been meeting privately for a year on comprehensive immigration reform. Though he didn't reveal details, he called it a responsible solution.
Boehner said Republicans need to be educated on the issue before any legislation is advanced.
Unlike most other industrialized nations, the U.S. awards a much larger proportion of green cards to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents than to foreigners with job prospects here. Green cards are permanent resident visas and allow holders to eventually become citizens.
Current law gives preference to spouses and minor and unmarried children of U.S. citizens. Permanent residents can petition for immediate family, and citizens can petition to bring in their married children and siblings, but they're on a lower priority.
Graham indicated he would prefer to eliminate the married children and sibling categories altogether.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized the proposed changes.
Instead of reducing green cards for family members and increasing them for employment ties, senators should make more green cards available overall, he said. Lawmakers in the past, Republicans in particular, have opposed that approach.
Meanwhile, they've been hearing pleas from the technology industry for more high-tech workers and from industries like hospitality and agriculture that use lower-skilled workers.
Lee agreed there is demand for workers with science, technology, engineering and math degrees. But dairy farmers and sheepherders also need labor because Americans aren't filling those jobs, he said.
Last month, Lee introduced two pieces of immigration legislation. One bill would eliminate the per country percentage caps on all skilled labor visa holders. The second bill would extend the amount of time agricultural workers are allowed to stay and work.
Contributing: Associated Press