By Genilde Guerra & Robert Kravitz

After months of closed-door negotiations, the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has offered a summary of its proposal for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Here is how the Senate bill would handle legalizing the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, changing or establishing the programs under which future workers can come into the country, and how to better shape the family-based immigration system:

Undocumented immigrants in the U.S.:

America’s roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants will have a chance to become citizens, but will have to wait for tough border security measures to be instituted before they can complete a long process.

The exceptions to this are young, undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers (named after previous legislation), as well as some agricultural workers. Both would have a streamlined path to citizenship, with the wait for DREAMers being five years.

Everyone else, however, would apply for “registered prospective immigrant” (RPI) status by passing a background check and paying a $500 fine alongside assessed taxes. That status would be good for six years but could not be obtained before DHS submits its two border security plans to Congress. RPI status would give the newly-documented the ability to travel internationally and work in the U.S. and can be renewed for another $500.

After ten years as an RPI, immigrants could apply to become green card holders through a new immigration category if they meet several criteria:

  • Continuous presence and employment in the U.S. over that decade
  • Up-to-date tax payments
  • Demonstrated knowledge of U.S. civics and English
  • Payment of a $1,000 fine.

Note that all individuals who are waiting for green cards when the bill is enacted will have to have been processed through the immigration system before RPIs get green cards. That means those in the country illegally today would have gone to the “back of the line.”

After five years with a green card, these immigrants would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship, meaning the first bloc of potential U.S. citizens other than DREAMers and agriculture workers would take their citizenship oaths just before 2030.

Streamlining the Visa Process:

The Senate bill would completely revamp temporary worker programs:

It would increase the number of high-skilled visas from 65,000 to 110,000. From there, the number would fluctuate based on need, with a ceiling of 180,000. The new law would require higher wages than the current law, and the jobs would need to be posted on a central jobs bank site hosted by the Department of Labor so Americans could find and apply for the positions, too.

It would create a new low-skilled worker program called the W visa, beginning in 2015. An initial pool of 20,000 temporary workers would grow to as many as 75,000 over four years. At that point, a new bureau responsible for studying labor conditions would decide how many visas would be available.

And it would scrap the current agricultural worker program (H2-A visas) for a pair of new visa offers. Agricultural workers, like DREAMers, would have an opportunity for an expedited path to citizenship under certain conditions.

The bill emphasizes the need to shift immigration resources toward immigrants with advanced degrees and those with master’s degree or better in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) from U.S. universities who meet certain specifications. It specifies that 40 percent of all employment-based visas be given to those two groups.

Beyond employment-based visas, the bill would create an entirely new category of “merit based” visas that would take into account education, employment, and length of residence in the U.S., among other considerations. These would come into effect five years after the bill’s enactment and begin at 120,000 visas, though that could rise to a maximum of 250,000. It is this category that those who are in the country illegally now would be funneled into after a decade as RPIs.

Guerra and Kravitz

Family reunification:

The Senate bill will likewise shift U.S. immigration policy toward family members.

Chiefly, the bill focuses on getting spouses and children into the country, but it will cut back on allowing siblings and adult, married children to join their families in the U.S.

Those who could bring their spouses and children to the country without delay include green card holders, employment-based immigrants, doctoral degree holders in any field, some physicians, and some immigrants of “extraordinary ability” (like athletes, artists, executives, and others). Limits or bars on immigration among these core family members in the past put pressure on spouses and children to illegally immigrate to be with their loved ones, advocates say, and these changes will help alleviate those concerns.

Moreover, the bill says that the entire backlog of family-based visa applicants will be cleared within ten years.

But U.S. citizens will no longer be able to sponsor siblings, beginning eighteen months after the bill is enacted. And the only married, adult children who can apply to join their families will be those under age thirty-one. The bill also eliminates the diversity visa program, which brings in immigrants from countries underrepresented in the wider immigration pool.

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