By JULIA PRESTON
Published: April 16, 2013
WASHINGTON – A sweeping immigration bill that a bipartisan group of eight senators plans to introduce on Tuesday seeks not only to fix chronic problems in the system and bring an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to the right side of the law. It would also reorient future immigration with the goal of bringing foreigners to the country increasingly based on the job skills and personal assets they can offer.
The bill, by four Democrats and four Republicans, is the most ambitious effort in at least 26 years to repair, update and reshape the American immigration system.
The part of the bill expected to draw the most controversy is a 13-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have been living here illegally. In an effort to make that proposal acceptable to Republicans who fear that it could unleash a new wave of illegal immigration, the senators placed a series of markers along the pathway, called triggers, that would require the Department of Homeland Security to spend as much as $5.5 billion over 10 years to increase enforcement and extend fencing along the Southwest border.
The border security programs would have to be fully operational before any immigrants who had been here illegally would be able to apply for permanent resident green cards, the first step toward becoming American citizens. The bill would also require all employers to verify the legal status of all new hires using a photo matching system within five years. It would also require the federal government to create an electronic system within 10 years for checking foreigners as they leave the country through airports and seaports.
But the proposal for illegal immigrants is only one part of the complex bargain. Created by senators in tough negotiations behind closed doors that continued in recent days even as the final text was being written, the legislation codifies other novel compromises designed to break logjams that had long clogged the immigration system.
The senators said they would introduce the bill on Tuesday. But late Monday, out of respect for the victims of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, they canceled an event where they had planned to unveil the bill with some of its influential supporters. But the lawmakers provided a 17-page summary of its major provisions.
For the first time, the legislation would create a merit-based program to award the visa for legal permanent residents, known as a green card, based on a point system. When the merit system takes effect, five years after the bill is passed, at least 120,000 immigrants already living in the United States and people outside the country would be able to gain green cards by accumulating points based on their skills and education, as well as their family ties and the time they have lived in the United States.
Over a decade, staff members familiar with the bill said, the balance in the immigration system would gradually shift, from 75 percent of visas that now go to family members of immigrants already here. As a result of the merit program and other visa changes, closer to 50 percent of visas annually would go to immigrants based on their family ties, while about half would go to foreigners based on job skills.
The bill also responds to the demands of American farmers and other employers of seasonal workers by creating two new guest-worker programs, one for farmworkers and another for low-wage laborers.
The legislation would give employers in technology and science fields tens of thousands of new temporary and permanent resident visas annually, which they have been urgently seeking for tech workers and foreign graduates with advanced degrees from American universities. It immediately raises current annual caps on temporary high-skilled visas, known as H-1B, to 110,000 from 65,000, while adding 5,000 more of those visas for the foreign graduates. The cap would gradually rise to 180,000 annually.
The legislation would create a “start-up” visa for foreign entrepreneurs who want to come here to found companies that employ Americans.
The bill would also offer a fast track to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. They would be eligible to become citizens after only five years.
The senators are gambling that the bill would repair enough longstanding problems in the system to attract support from a broad array of groups who would benefit from those changes, including Latinos, religious groups and labor unions that support the path to citizenship for those here illegally; big technology companies like Microsoft and Facebook, which have been clamoring for more visas for engineers and computer specialists; agricultural growers and other employers in labor-intensive businesses; and immigrant families who stand to be united more quickly with family members coming here legally.
A list of those who had been scheduled to show their support at the unveiling event on Tuesday included Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who together negotiated the terms of one of the guest-worker programs; Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union; Clarissa Martinez de Castro of NCLR, also known as the National Council of La Raza, a Latino organization; and Grover Norquist, the longtime antitax advocate.
Opponents of the legislation, especially Republicans, were ready to focus their criticism on the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which they regard as amnesty.
Based on several early versions of the bill that had been leaked, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, a leading Republican on the immigration issue, said it contained “a fatal flaw.”
“It legalizes almost everyone in the country illegally, also known as amnesty, before it secures the border,” Mr. Smith said. “As a result, the Senate proposal issues an open invitation to enter the country illegally.”
Of the many compromises in the bill, perhaps the most original is the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Several Republicans, especially Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, insisted that there could be no special, separate path for illegal immigrants. But Democrats, led by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, were fighting for a direct, manageable pathway that would ensure most immigrants here illegally a chance to earn their way to becoming citizens.
In a first phase, those immigrants would spend a minimum of 10 years in Registered Provisional Immigrant Status, which would allow them to work and travel. At the end of 10 years, they would be eligible to apply for green cards through the merit system.
Under that system there would be two tracks: one based on the number of points immigrants could accumulate, with a fixed annual numerical cap, and another for foreigners who had been legally employed and living in the United States in good standing for 10 years or more. The second track would not have a cap. Formerly illegal immigrants would be eligible to apply, after 10 years in provisional status, for those green cards.
However, many other immigrants would also be eligible for the merit system. They include those who had applied legally for green cards and had been stuck in backlogs for 10 years or more. The solution satisfies both Mr. Rubio’s and the Democrats’ demands.
Besides Mr. Rubio and Mr. Schumer, the other senators in the group, who have been called the Gang of Eight, are Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, all Democrats; and John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all Republicans.
Mr. Schumer and Mr. McCain were scheduled to meet with President Obama on Tuesday to discuss the bill.
In other compromises, the bill would reduce the categories of family members eligible for green cards, eliminating siblings of United States citizens and limiting sons and daughters of citizens to those under 31 years of age. It would eliminate a lottery that has distributed 55,000 visas each year. Those visas would be used to reduce backlogs of applicants elsewhere in the system. Republicans have sought to limit what they call family chain migration and to accomplish changes without increasing the overall number of visas.
But among the victories for Democrats is a provision, demanded by Latinos and immigrant groups, to allow immigrants who had been deported on noncriminal grounds to apply to return if they have spouses or minor children here.
While technology companies will have more visas, Mr. Durbin fought for new provisions in the H-1B program to raise wage rates for those immigrants and make it more expensive for outsourcing companies from India and other countries to obtain those visas.
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