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Senate bill would impose tough limits on immigration

A bill that aims to reduce immigration to the United States for the first time in 70 years and increase penalties for illegal immigrants was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday.

Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who four years ago sponsored a historic rise in immigration from 500,000 a year to 700,000, now proposes that for the next five years, immigration levels be rolled back to the pre-1990 level. The hiatus would allow the economy to improve and let officials repair an immigration system whose loopholes and arcane bureaucracy lure droves of illegal immigrants.

"After a decade of high immigration coupled with a tough recession and high unemployment, it is time to take a breather," said Simpson, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Countries such as Canada and Australia adjust immigration levels to their economic performance, but the United States has never done so, Simpson said.

"In 1990, when we increased the numbers, we did not foresee the length or depth of the recession," he said. "We did not anticipate California's economic crisis. And we did not appreciate the fact that illegal immigration was again growing to unacceptable levels."

Simpson's proposals, like several other measures suggested recently by President Clinton and politicians of various liberal and conservative stripes, come in response to new public outcry about the financial burden of both legal and illegal immigration.

California and Florida, home to a disproportionately high number of illegal aliens and political asylum seekers have insisted that the federal government should compensate them for the billions of dollars it has cost them for services such as education and health care.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles even has threatened to sue for the compensation, saying the federal government failed in its duty to prevent illegal aliens from entering the country.

Simpson's bill calls for issuing a tamper-proof identity card that will allow citizens and legal residents alone to apply for jobs and social services.

Some of the highlights of Simpson's plan:

Those who cross the border will be charged a fee; those caught crossing illegally from Mexico would be sent back to the interior of the country, not the border.

Criminal aliens, who make up one-fourth of federal prisoners, would be incarcerated at closed military bases.

Asylum seekers who come to America's ports and airports without documents will have to prove they have a "credible" fear of persecution or be sent right back. People who smuggle in aliens could be charged with racketeering and face prison sentences doubled to 10 years.

Calling his bill "tough and strong _ but fair," Simpson said it is necessary to weed out illegal immigration from America's back door so that the United States can keep its front door open to legal immigration.

Simpson's proposal was criticized by groups that favor immigration. "He's attempting to capitalize on concerns against illegal immigration to cut back on legal immigration," said Cecilia Munoz, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza in Washington.