AP 8 Sep 94 16:22 EDT V0518 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Hiding behind the towering debate over abortion at the U.N. population conference is another touchy issue: Do immigrants have a "right" to reunite their families?

The clash pits the wealthy West against 90 mostly poor countries and millions of their citizens seeking prosperity in the industrialized world.

The conflict rests on a single phrase in the migration chapter of the conference's draft 20-year Program of Action to control population growth. Governments of countries that take in many immigrants are urged to "recognize the right to family reunification."

The United States, Canada, Australia and European Union want to strike the word "right." The Group of 77, which represents developing countries and is headed by Algeria, insists on leaving it in.

The two sides failed to reach a compromise Thursday and put off the matter until Friday, the last scheduled day of negotiations on the draft text.

The rich countries argue that granting an internationally recognized "right" for immigrants to have relatives join them would create the potential for a flood of new arrivals.

They say immigration quotas providing for a given number of refugees and spouses are fair, and that each country should make its own decisions. Many, including the United States, already give priority to family members.

If you're going to manage a population program, "you cannot leave it open-ended," a Canadian delegate said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The arguments are curiously similar to the debate over abortion.

The West's opponents on abortion rights, the Vatican and its Roman Catholic allies, condemn establishing an international "right" to abortion. They say it would ride roughshod over national sovereignty and cultural and religious prohibitions.

In the migration case however, the Holy See finds no threat to national sovereignty in establishing an international right to family reunification.

"In principle we have been talking for years in favor of family reunification," said Rev. Silvano Tomasi, secretary of the pontifical institute for migrants.

The conflict between individual rights and national independence in both cases illustrates the difficulty in anticipating how much the final document will influence people and nations around the world.

"We are talking about reproductive rights, yet we are prohibiting the right of a husband and wife getting together," Turkish delegate Aykut Toros said at a committee working on the wording. "People have a right to live in a stable family."

Turkey sends millions of emigrants to Western Europe.

Both sides are adamant about their positions, but diplomats see potential compromises. "Right" could be changed to "principle," for instance, or "right" could be left in with references added to other international conventions promoting family unity.

The United Nations estimates that more than 125 million people, including refugees, have migrated to other countries. Another 1.4 million people head for developed countries every year.