WASHINGTON — The U.S. immigration system would undergo dramatic changes under a bipartisan Senate bill that puts a new focus on prospective immigrants' merit and employment potential, while seeking to end illegal immigration once and for all by creating legal avenues for workers to come here.
The bill would put the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines plus additional fees, and would begin only after steps have been taken to secure the border, according to an outline of the measure.
The sweeping legislation also would remake the nation's inefficient legal immigration system, creating new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new "merit visa" aimed at bringing people with talents to the U.S. Senators planned to formally introduce the bill Tuesday, but a planned press event including immigration advocates, business groups, religious leaders and others was delayed until later in the week because of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon.
Employers would face tough new requirements to check the legal status of all workers. Billions of dollars would be poured into border security, and millions of people who've been waiting overseas for years, sometimes decades, in legal immigration backlogs would see their cases speeded up.
Overall, the changes represent the most dramatic overhaul to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter-century, and Congress' first major attempt to confront the polarizing issue since bipartisan legislation in 2007 collapsed on the Senate floor.
"The status quo is unsustainable. The nation's failure to fix its broken immigration system has created what is, in reality, de facto amnesty," Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and John McCain, R-Ariz., leaders of the effort, wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. "Our bill would establish a tough but fair system for millions of people living in the shadows to come forward and settle their debt to society by fulfilling reasonable requirements to become law-abiding citizens."
Schumer and McCain were to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to brief him on the legislation. It's a top second-term priority for the president.
The bill is the result of months of secretive negotiations among Schumer, McCain and six other lawmakers known as the "Gang of Eight." The others are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The legislation is a painstaking attempt to balance a focus on border security and legal enforcement sought by Republicans in the group with Democratic priorities like making citizenship widely accessible. Crafting the bill was a time-consuming process of seeking compromise and bringing together traditionally opposed groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, and the United Farm Workers and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
But even harder work lies ahead now that legislative language will become public for other lawmakers and groups on all sides to examine and react to. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the bill Friday and Monday and likely move to amend and vote on it in May, with action on the Senate floor expected later in the summer. Republicans in the negotiating group briefed their GOP colleagues on the legislation Monday evening, but a number of Republican senators are already making clear they will not be won over.
In a statement Tuesday Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained there should be more hearings.
"Something is truly broken in Washington when the people, the law enforcement officers who protect them, and the people's representatives, have less time to review the bill than the special interests who helped write it," Sessions said.
The conservative-controlled House also must act, and the outcome there is even more uncertain, although a bipartisan group of House members has also been working on a comprehensive immigration bill.
Under the bill, immigrants here illegally could gain a provisional legal status six months after enactment as long as they meet certain criteria, and if the Homeland Security Department has moved forward on plans to secure the border. They would remain in that provisional status for 10 years, able to work legally but barred from federal benefits like welfare or health care. After 10 years they could seek green cards conferring permanent legal status, and three years after that they could petition for citizenship.
They would have to pay a total of $2,000 in fines along the way, and at least hundreds more in fees, though that number has not been determined. Immigrants would be barred from seeking citizenship if they'd been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, and no one who arrived in the country after Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible.
Those roadblocks attracted criticism from immigration advocates Tuesday.
"The proposed legislation falls short by placing unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans who are our neighbors, friends, family and fellow-worshippers," said Bishop Ricardo McClin, pastor of the Church of God Restoration in Kissimmee, Fla., and a member of PICO National Network, a faith-based organizing network. "PICO will be pressing for changes to make sure that the path to citizenship is real for the families in our congregations."
People brought here illegally as youths would have a faster path: They could get green cards in five years and would become eligible for citizenship immediately thereafter.
U.S. citizens no longer would be able to sponsor their siblings for eventual U.S. citizenship, a change activist groups have opposed. That's among several changes aimed at rebalancing an immigration system that now awards around 15 percent of green cards to people with employment ties, and the majority to people with family ties, to a system that awards 45 percent to 50 percent of green cards based on employment ties.
There would be no limit in the number of green cards awarded to people of extraordinary ability in science, arts, education, business or athletics, or to outstanding professors, doctors and others. A new startup visa would be created for foreign entrepreneurs trying to come here to start their own companies.
Visas for highly skilled workers greatly in demand by technology companies would nearly double. Low-skilled workers would be able to come in for jobs in construction, long-term care and other industries, ultimately up to 200,000 a year. A new agriculture visa program would bring farm workers to the U.S.; farm workers already here illegally would get a faster path to citizenship than others here illegally, able to seek a green card in five years, an effort to create a stable agricultural workforce.
On border security, the bill commits $4.5 billion, and an additional $2 billion if initial goals aren't met, with the goal of achieving 100 percent surveillance of the border with Mexico, and catching or turning back 90 percent of would-be crossers. The Homeland Security Department would have six months to develop plans to secure the border and erect new fencing, and only then could immigrants move into provisional legal status.
Before anyone could get a green card, mandatory E-Verify — a system employers can use to check their workers' status — would have to be in place, along with a new system to check arrivals and departures at airports and seaports, meant to track people who might overstay their visas. If the 90 percent effectiveness rate for catching people trying to cross the border is not met in five years, a new border security commission would be established of border governors and others to figure out how to achieve that goal.
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