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Senate immigration bill: A path to citizenship, shift to employment-based visas

April 16, 2013

After months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight Senators has drafted a blueprint that would sharply transform the nation's current immigration laws. NBC Latino obtained an advanced memo of the bill's main points ahead of an announcement. Here are some brief key provisions:

Pathway to citizenship for undocumented

The bill provides a path to citizenship for the nation's approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants as long as they entered the country before December 31, 2011. Undocumented immigrants without serious criminal convictions have one year - though that may be extended - to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant Status (RPI). This would allow them to be in this country legally, work for any employer and travel outside of the United States. While RPI confers legal status, it does not make individuals eligible for public benefits, including healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. The costs to apply for RPI status are a $500 fine, assessed taxes and application fees.

A significant aspect of this bill is that an applicant's spouse and children can be sponsored at the same time under the same application. There is no provision in the bill for same-sex couples, though a person familiar with the negotiations said that a DHS directive could be added if there are changes following a Supreme Court decision.

After 10 years, a person with RPI status will be eligible for a green card provided they have worked regularly, paid taxes, learned English and civics, and paid a $1,000 penalty. After three years with a green card, they can apply for citizenship.

Dreamers can get their green cards in 5 years, and will be eligible for citizenship immediately after that. Under a new AgJOBS Act, undocumented farm workers who have been working in the U.S. would be eligible for an Agricultural Card, and if they pay taxes and a $400 fine they and their spouses and minor children can adjust to legal permanent resident status.

The bill addresses the issue of families who have been separated through deportation. Undocumented immigrants who had been deported for non-criminal reasons but who had been in the U.S. before the end of 2011 can reapply to re-enter and apply for RPI status, if they are the spouse of or parent to a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident, or a Dreamer eligible for the DREAM Act.

Border Security

Despite the insistence of tying a path to citizenship to border security , the bill does not use triggers, but instead establishes border security "goals."

Six months after the law is enacted, undocumented immigrants may start applying for legal status once the DHS Secretary submits an operational border security strategy to Congress. The bill also requires a mandatory employment verification system (E-Verify), with provisions to crack down on document fraud and identity theft. And for the first time, the legislation requires an electronic system at air and sea ports of entry to track the exit of those visiting temporarily.

DHS will receive $3 billion dollars to implement border security, which will include more border patrol agents, unmanned drones, and increased surveillance.

If there is an effectiveness rate of 90 percent or higher in the high risk border areas within 5 years, then the "border security goal" is reached. If not, a Border Commission composed of bipartisan border security experts and border governors will be established.

Legal Immigration

The bill eliminates the backlog for family and employment-based immigration, which for some amounted to more than a 20-year wait.

But a big shift is the transition from a family-based unification system to a merit-based immigration system. For example, 18 months after the legislation is enacted, a legal resident or citizen can no longer sponsor adult siblings. The new bill would restrict "immediate relative" to children and spouses of those allowed to become lawful permanent residents.

Starting in 2014, the bill would eliminate the diversity visa program or visa lottery. Instead, in a nod to the business and tech sectors, the bill exempts those with doctorates in STEM fields, for example, from annual limits, as well as qualified physicians and multinational executives or managers. In all, employment visas for skilled workers will account for 40 percent of all employment visas. The bill also creates startup visas for entrepreneurs, and after five years it awards merit based visas to individuals based on "points" for education, employment and other considerations.

Temporary Visas

The bill calls for increasing the skilled worker H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and the number may increase to 180,000 depending on labor demands and the unemployment rate. To ensure that increased skilled immigrants do not displace American workers, the bill requires that employers pay higher wages to H-1B workers and also requires that jobs first be advertised before hiring H-1B workers. It also allows these skilled immigrant workers to change jobs.

To ensure the country has enough low-skilled workers, the bill creates a new type of visa, the W-visa. The bill calls for a formation of an independent agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, to decide the annual changes in the visa caps depending on market and labor conditions.

In a concession to labor and to immigrants rights workers, W-visa workers will have employee and whistleblower protections, a complaints process, equivalent wages and the ability to change jobs. And in a big change, these low-skilled immigrant workers can bring their immediate family.

From the Gang of Eight to a Congressional debate

After months of intense negotiations, the bipartisan group of Senators cleared some pretty significant hurdles - a path to citizenship which still differentiates between legal and undocumented immigrants, the elimination of immigration backlogs, a guarantee of border security, and a substantial increase in the number of high-skilled as well as low-skilled workers. However,the debate is just starting, first in the Senate and then in the House.

The bill will be formally introduced today, but the press conference scheduled for today has been postponed due to the events in Boston, and is expected later in the week.

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