After months of negotiations, the bipartisan Gang of Eight group of U.S. senators filed a long-awaited comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill early this morning. Hearings on the 844-page bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled for Friday and Monday.
The proposed bill would allow undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. on or before December 31, 2011 to apply for temporary legal status as long as they have been in the U.S. since their entry and have no felony convictions. Among many proposed reforms, the bill would allow undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to travel and work without fear of deportation while in this provisional status.
The bill outlines a path to citizenship that, for most undocumented immigrants, will take at least 13 years. After receiving provisional status, undocumented immigrants would have to wait at least 10 years, pay back taxes and at least $2,000 in fees, learn English, and maintain regular employment before becoming eligible to apply for a green card. After an additional 3 years they could apply for full naturalization.
However, immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and served in the military or attended college—also known as DREAMers—would go through a shorter process and be exempt from a $500 fee. DREAMers and agricultural workers, who are also in high demand, would be eligible to receive green cards within five years.
In an effort to gain bipartisan support, the CIR bill includes “trigger” measures that would ensure that any path to citizenship is dependent on increased border security and internal enforcement provisions, including a mandatory national employment verification system and electronic exit systems at air and seaports. The bill stipulates that $4.5 billion be spent on border security, including extending the U.S.-Mexico border fence, increasing patrols and using drones for surveillance. Additionally, border officers would have to apprehend 90 percent of those crossing into the U.S. in “high risk sectors.” The bill would also increase the number of H-1B, or high-skill visas, to 110,000 visas per year with the possibility of raising the cap to up to 180,000 in future years. The current cap of 65,000 visas was reached in just 5 days this year.
Overall, the bill also begins to shift the focus of the U.S. immigration system from family unification to work skills through a major new merit-based program for immigrants to become legal permanent residents—a recognition of the need for immigrants for U.S. economic competitiveness.