A so-called “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators, four democrats and four republicans, last week unveiled comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would among other things create a “path to citizenship” for some 11 million illegal immigrants.

The bipartisan measure, a top domestic priority for President Obama, represents Congress’s first major attempt to address the issue of illegal immigration since 2007. Read more.

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Immigration Reform Bill: Odds Favor Enactment

Thu May 2, 2013

A so-called “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators, four democrats and four republicans, last week unveiled comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would among other things create a “path to citizenship” for some 11 million illegal immigrants.

The bipartisan measure, a top domestic priority for President Obama, represents Congress’s first major attempt to address the issue of illegal immigration since 2007. 

According to a Wall Street Journal summary, the bill, formally named the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” has six pillars:

1.  Border Security: Recognizing that according legal status to the 11 million undocumented individuals now in the U.S. could spur new waves of illegal aliens, the bill would direct the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration, to submit a plan to apprehend or deter 90% of the people who attempt to enter the country illegally. Sponsors of the legislation advocate a new border security system of drones, electronic fences and state-of-the-art surveillance.

2. Provisional Legal Status: If the bill becomes law, illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since December 31, 2011 would be able to register for “provisional legal status,” a first-step category that would allow them to legally work for any employer.

To qualify for provisional status immigrants would be required to pay a fine expected to be between $500 and $1,000; pay any back taxes; learn English; and submit to a criminal background check. While those who earn provisional status would not be eligible for federal benefit programs, they effectively would become legal immigrants.

3. Permanent Resident Status: After a provisional status period of ten years, and declaration by the secretary of Homeland Security that new border control systems have effectively stopped illegal entry, most of the 11 million people who had been illegal immigrants could apply for permanent legal residence—in other words, “green card” status. These individuals would need to “go to the end of the line” of applicants for green card status.

4. Citizenship: Three years after having permanent residence, i.e., a full thirteen years after attaining provisional legal status, immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship.

Thus, the proposed legislation envisions a long and winding pathway to citizenship, including a relatively long period of provisional legal status and border security measures before immigrants could even apply for permanent residency. The path would be smoother for persons brought to the U.S. as children, so-called “Dream Act” young people, who would have an accelerated path to green cards and citizenship.

5. New Visa Programs: The bipartisan legislation would also create a new guest-worker “W” visa specifically for low-skilled workers in high-demand occupations, starting with 20,000 such visas in 2015.  There would also be a reconstituted H-1B visa program for highly skilled engineers and computer programmers, increasing the number from 65,000 to 110,000. Incidentally, this year’s limit was reached in the first week that companies were allowed to apply. The bill also contemplates certain changes to the current family visa program.

6. Mandatory E-Verify: If the new bill becomes law, all employers would be required to implement the federal E-Verify program after a five year phase-in period. E-Verify is essentially an Internet-based system administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration that allows employers to verify the work eligibility of new hires.

Outlook

To be sure, introduction of legislation, even on a bipartisan basis, is only step one in an arduous process of a bill becoming law—especially in today’s hyper-political Washington DC environment. What makes this time different, however, is that comprehensive immigration reform enjoys widespread support, including from many business and labor organizations.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has co-founded a new group that supports immigration reform—FWD.us.  And recent polls put public support in the 70% range.

After the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is formally introduced in the U.S. Senate the next step will be hearings on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. With strong support from President Obama and democrats in majority control the bill is expected to win committee approval. Then it will go to the Senate floor possibly as early as this summer, with votes on amendments expected. The legislation could receive more than the 60-vote minimum needed to overcome parliamentary delaying tactics.

Assuming the Senate approves the bill it will then be referred to the House of Representatives, where republicans are in the majority. The outlook in the House remains uncertain, with some members expressing reservations about ultimately granting “citizenship,” as opposed to legal status, to illegal immigrants.  Some observers expect that the House will amend but not kill the legislation. 

At this early stage it’s impossible to predict whether comprehensive immigration reform legislation including a path to citizenship will become the law of the land this year. It is possible to say that the odds favor doing something to fix the nation’s obviously broken immigration system and create some new form of status that would allow the 11 million “unauthorized” people who are already here to live and work legally in the U.S.