Senators release immigration plan details

Activists gather at the Capitol for an All In for Citizenship rally last week. Tens of thousands of reform supporters gathered for the rally to call on Congress to act on immigration proposals.
Activists gather at the Capitol for an All In for Citizenship rally last week. Tens of thousands of reform supporters gathered for the rally to call on Congress to act on immigration proposals.
Published Apr. 16, 2013

WASHINGTON — After months of private negotiations, a group of senators are set to reveal sweeping legislation that dramatically shifts immigration policy away from the family based system to one based on work skills.

As part of the merit-based plan, people would be awarded points on education, employment and length of residence in the United States, while families ties would be less important.

The lawmakers were to announce the legislation today but the event was postponed because of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Millions of undocumented residents already in the United States would have to pay at least $2,000 in fines plus back taxes in order to get in the merit-based line, which could lead to citizenship in about 13 years.

The new system would create 120,000 visas per year, according to an outline provided to the Tampa Bay Times. That number could rise by 5 percent per year if demand exceeds supply and unemployment is below 8.5 percent, reaching a ceiling of 250,000.

The legislation seeks to eliminate a backlog of pending permanent resident visa applications, about 4.7 million, but also moves away from a family based system. For example, it phases out immigrant visas for siblings of U.S. citizens.

The legislation creates a low-skill worker program and significantly increases visas for workers in fields with high demand, a victory for the technology industry.

It also puts young immigrants brought to the country illegally by adults on a fast-path to citizenship. So-called "Dreamers" and workers in an agricultural program would get green cards in five years, versus the 10 for everyone else who qualifies.

The younger immigrants would be eligible for citizenship immediately after getting a green card. In a major nod to families that have been split by deportations, people who were expelled for noncriminal reasons can apply to re-enter the United States as long as they lived here before Dec. 31, 2011.

The sweeping immigration bill, which has been in the works since December, was crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

But the bill's introduction is only the beginning of a lengthy debate. A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that had been set for Wednesday has been moved to Friday to allow for more scrutiny of the legislation. House negotiators are working on their own package.

The Senate bill calls for $3 billion to carry out a "Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy," which will add new surveillance equipment as well as add 3,500 customs agents and authorize the use of National Guard to help patrol rural areas. Another $1.5 billion is included for new fencing along the southern border with Mexico.

Employers would have to check the legal status of employees through an electronic system known as E-verify. Businesses with more than 5,000 employees would have to have the system in place in two years; those with more than 500 within three years.

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The security strategy would have to be under way before undocumented residents — estimated at about 11 million, including more than 800,000 in Florida — could seek "Registered Provisional Immigrant Status," putting them on a path to citizenship.

A person would have to demonstrate residence in the United States prior to Dec. 31, 2011, have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors and pay a $500 penalty plus back taxes. Another $500 would be required after six years. After 10 years under Registered Provisional Immigrant Status, a person could pay $1,000 and seek a green card using the new merit-based system.

That system would come in five years after the bill is enacted and would award points based on education, employment, length of residence and other considerations. The outline provided to the Times does not include the point system. The points system is sure to draw controversy, as it has in past attempts at immigration reform, because it places less emphasis on family based immigration, which has defined U.S. policy for decades.

Another point of likely contention: A new W-Visa program for low-skilled workers. The bill calls for a new agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, to determine an annual cap on visas, based on job shortages.

The visas would be good for three years but renewable for additional three-year periods. Employers would have to show they are paying immigrants the same wage as other employees.

Even before the outline emerged, there was criticism of a provision allowing up to 15,000 slots for the construction industry. "Increasingly it's getting more and more difficult to get Americans to consider construction as a career," said Geoff Burr of the Associated Builders & Contractors.

The proposal also increases the number of H-1B visas, which are for workers in high-skill jobs. The current base cap of 65,000 would rise to 111,000 and could go as high as 180,000. Employers would have to pay "significantly" higher wages than current law and first advertise the jobs to American workers.