WASHINGTON — Senators writing a comprehensive immigration bill may dramatically limit green cards for extended families of US citizens, reserving them for immediate family members instead, a key lawmaker said Thursday.
It would be a significant change to US immigration policy that has long favored family ties over economic or job criteria. And it is already sparking opposition from groups trying to protect family-based immigration.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is part of a bipartisan Senate group negotiating the bill, said the aim is to remake the immigration system so that it has a much clearer economic focus.
‘‘Green cards should be reserved for the nuclear family,’’ Graham said. “Green cards are economic engines for the country. This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about an economic need.’’
Unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States awards a much larger proportion of green cards to family members of US citizens and permanent residents than to foreigners with job prospects here. Green cards are permanent resident visas that allow holders to eventually become citizens.
About two-thirds of permanent legal immigration to the United States is family-based, compared with about 15 percent that is employment-based, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The remainder is largely humanitarian.
Current law gives preference to spouses and minor and unmarried children of US citizens. Permanent residents can petition for immediate family, and citizens can petition to bring in their married children and siblings, but they are on a lower priority. Graham indicated that he would prefer to eliminate the married children and sibling categories altogether.
‘‘We’re going to change fundamentally the immigration system,’’ Graham said.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized the proposed changes.
‘‘What the senator’s not taking into account is the social costs for not preserving families in the immigration system, which is not as tangible or measurable as an economic benefit, maybe, but immigrant families do strengthen our social fabric,’’ Appleby said.
Appleby said that instead of reducing green cards for family members and increasing them for employment ties, senators should simply make more green cards available. Lawmakers in the past, Republicans in particular, have opposed that approach.
Meanwhile they have been hearing pleas from the technology industry for more high-tech workers and from industries like hospitality and agriculture that use lower-skilled workers.
Advocates agree that changes are needed to the family immigration system. Right now there are more than 4 million people waiting in backlogs, with Filipinos in the sibling category facing waits topping two decades. The Senate group has committed to reducing that backlog.
The tension between family- and employment-based immigration has not gotten as much attention in a debate that is often focused on border security and the fate of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here, who would be given a path to legalize their status in the Senate bill. But the issue could become contentious as senators work to finalize their legislation by next month.