Breaking Down the Senate’s Immigration Proposal

Immigration, Politics, Taxes

immigration billThe Senate immigration bill was front and center in the news last week. Drafted by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, including senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the 844-page bill addresses issues of border control, illegal immigration, visas for legal immigration, and more. Here’s a brief guide to the major proposed changes in this behemoth bill, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”

Billions for Border Control

First, the Department of Homeland Security must develop and implement plans for increased border security. The bill proposes $1.5 billion for border fencing and $3 billion for more agents and border security measures including better surveillance.

Much of the controversy is focused here, as the bill makes citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on border control. Democrats don’t believe that citizenship should be held up, possibly for years, as measures are put in place, while Republicans insist it be addressed first.

A 13-year Path to Citizenship for Illegal Immigrants

Under the bill, undocumented immigrants who meet a set of criteria would be eligible to start a 13-year long process leading to citizenship. These criteria include:

  • Being able to prove that they have been in the U.S. continuously since before Dec. 31, 2011
  • Having a good criminal record
  • Not being considered a national security risk
  • Being caught up on taxes (they must pay back taxes, though via the bill they are not subject to prosecution for not having already paid)

After meeting the criteria, applicants would begin with provisional status for 10 years, under which they could legally work but could not take advantage of federal housing aid, food stamps, Medicaid, or other welfare programs. Next, they would apply for a green card, granting them permanent resident status. Three years later, they would be eligible to apply for citizenship. Throughout this time, they must have a steady work history, be up-to-date on taxes, and have a good grasp on civics and the English language. Fines over the course of the 13 years would total $2,000. It’s estimated that up to 11 million undocumented immigrants could be affected.

Exceptions to the above path include: illegal immigrants brought here as children, and those already working on a farm. Both groups would be eligible for a green card after only five years.

Big Changes to the Legal Immigration System

The bill details numerous changes to the current immigration system, which is generally considered inefficient and difficult to navigate. These changes deemphasize family ties and increase the number of visas for skilled and unskilled labor. It also calls for employers to face stricter protocols on insuring their employees are legally able to work.

Currently, about 15% of visas are granted for reasons of employment, while 75% are for family members of current citizens. If enacted, the bill would reduce the number of visas granted to family members and make the balance closer to 50-50. Citizens would no longer be able to sponsor siblings. Currently, about 65,000 visas are given to sponsored siblings each year.

The Diversity Visa Program awards 55,000 visas per year to people from countries with historically low rates of emigration to the U.S., with as many as 50% of those visas going to people in African nations. This program would be eliminated under the bill.

A focus on merits-based visas would increase the number of visas for talented people, including those with skills and advanced degrees in the fields of art, science, education, and business. Entrepreneurs with plans to start a business here also have an advantage. The number of visas for low-skilled jobs, such as construction, could go up to 200,000 per year. Agriculture visas would bring in farm workers.

The Next Steps

The Senate Judiciary Committee met this last Monday, April 22nd to discuss the bill, during which twenty-three people testified. Topics included whether the recent Boston Marathon bombings should affect the bill, and if so, how. Others suggested breaking the bill into smaller parts, so that the sections that have strong support from both Republicans and Democrats could become law more quickly. You can watch the Committee’s webcast of the meeting here.

The bill’s proponents are hoping for a vote in May or June. Meanwhile, a separate immigration bill from the House of Representatives is expected to be introduced soon and to contain many of the same elements as the Senate bill.