WASHINGTON (AP) — Two years after his father was deported to Mexico, Joel Garcia Jr. is trying to bring him back to the U.S. by applying for one of the green cards annually available for parents of U.S. citizens.

But if some Republicans get their way in the immigration debate, there will be far fewer green cards available for people like Garcia’s father. Cards for citizens’ siblings and adult children and for adult children of legal permanent residents would disappear.

Although they have not drafted a bill, U.S. senators are negotiating immigration details behind the scenes, including a limit on which and how many family members can join citizens and legal residents in the U.S.

Joel Garcia Sr. entered the country illegally more than two decades ago. But his son says he later entered with legitimate work permits that allowed him to stay in the country for about 20 years before he was deported to Michoacan, Mexico, for the initial illegal entry.

Garcia and two of his three brothers help pay the family’s bills and send money to their father. Their mother has returned to food stamps, said Garcia, who lives in Dallas.

“I have to worry if they are going to have enough money to pay the bills. If my dad were here I wouldn’t have to worry about that. He would be worrying about that,” said Garcia, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter.

The idea of limiting visas for relatives has renewed a classic debate in immigration over who makes up the nuclear family and whether immigration policy should focus on family unity or drawing immigrants based on the benefit they can bring to the U.S.

Those who support family-based immigration say it cuts down on illegal entries by families wanting to be together and reflects U.S. values. But critics say the visas create an unending chain of migration that swells immigrant numbers and draws the unskilled and uneducated.

Talk of curbing green cards for relatives has sent tremors through immigrant communities, many of whom have had relatives on waiting lists to enter for years.

“I think anger is more accurate. The president said family ties don’t stop at the Rio Grande. People look up to the president on things like this and no one can understand why they are doing this,” said Randall Emery, director of American Families United, a group formed by U.S. citizens to assist families with navigating immigration laws.

Supporters say the nation should base immigration on employment skills to reduce the number of immigrants on public assistance.

“This flawed system adds to our nation’s financial problems considering that family-based immigrants tend to be the most impoverished and on average have the lowest skill levels and earning potential,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

Last year, 802,712 people, including some already in the U.S. on other visas, became legal permanent U.S. residents through family connections. That compares to 534,060 in 1997, according to Citizenship Immigration Services’ Yearbook of Statistics for 2006.

Under the U.S. immigration system, spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens get green cards and are not in the line for family-preference visas other relatives must get.

First priority for family preference visas, which lead to green cards, goes to unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens, followed by spouses, minor children and unmarried children of legal permanent residents. The third priority is married children of citizens and their spouses and children and finally, siblings of U.S. citizens and their spouses and children.

The complicated, take-a-number system has long frustrated family members who want to play by the rules. Waits for visas are so long that U.S. citizens who applied on May 15, 2001, for visas for unmarried children are just now being served.

For some, young children become adults during the wait or marry, changing their status and place in line.

Sebastian Sam, 64, of Portland, Ore., left Nigeria in 1978 to study in the U.S. He naturalized in 1997 and applied for his family to join him. His wife entered 2003 and his children got the OK, but have been unable to enter the country. Now adults, his children put off marrying so they wouldn't have to wait longer for visas.

“I missed their youth. I missed all of that, guidance and everything,” Sam said. “No matter what, children need to see both parents together and be advised and directed to do what they are supposed to do.”

On the Net:

Citizenship and Immigration Services: http://www.cis.gov

Department of Homeland Security statistics: http://www.dhs.gov/ximgtn/statistics/publications/yearbook.shtm

Department of State visa bulletin: http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/frvi/bulletin/bulletin_3219.html