The path to comprehensive immigration reform has never been smooth. Coming the day before the Senate’s “Gang of 8” were to present their immigration proposal, the tragic events in Boston may have delayed its official announcement. It is a long-awaited proposal that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called “a starting point” on Sunday’s Meet The Press. In anticipation of its imminent unveiling, here are the major takeaways of the Senate plan.
1. The Senate plan includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented that will take 13 years. Undocumented immigrants who can prove continuous presence in the country before December 31, 2011 will be eligible to adjust their status. They must have clean records and pay taxes and a $500 fine, in addition to any fees. Then they can apply for “Registered Provision Immigrant” status.
2. People with Registered Provision Immigrant status can live and work legally in the U.S., and travel outside the country. Another $500 fine will kick in after six years as a Registered Provision Immigrant. After 10 years, a Registered Provision Immigrant may apply for a green card if they know English, pay taxes, and pay a $1,000 fine. It will take an additional three years for a green card to be converted into citizenship. However, these provisions are all dependent upon the Department of Homeland Security meeting their border security goals.
3. DREAMers and agricultural workers will have a shorter path to citizenship. People who were brought illegally to the U.S as children and would otherwise qualify for the DREAM Act can obtain green cards in five years (and are exempted from the $500 fine). They will then be eligible for citizenship immediately. The Senate plan also includes the AgJobs Act, which will allow current agricultural workers to obtain legal status through the Agricultural Card Program.
4. Some deportees will be allowed to legally re-enter the U.S. Undocumented immigrants who were here before December 31, 2011 and were deported for non-criminal reasons can apply to re-enter the country if they are the spouse or a parent of a citizen or lawful permanent resident. This is good news for many of the nearly 250,000 deportees with citizen children; they will have a chance to reunite with their families.
5. More visas will be allocated on a merit-based system. Our current system allows roughly two-thirds of legal immigration on the basis of family unification, and 14 percent based on employment. Now the allotment for employment visas for skilled workers and professionals will gradually rise.
6. The number of H1B visas will be increased. H1B visas are for workers with college degrees or in skilled occupations. They are capped at 65,000 per year, with an additional exemption of 20,000 for people with advanced degrees. This has often proved inadequate for the number of applicants; the 2014 cap was reached in only 5 days. The Senate plan raises the yearly cap to 110,000, and the advanced degree exemption to 25,000. To prevent employers from seeking to undercut American workers, employers will be required to pay H1B workers higher wages. Employers will face additional scrutiny from the government in order to prevent abuse of the H1B program.
7. Family-sponsored immigration will be somewhat curtailed. Within eighteen months of the bill’s enactment, citizens may no longer petition for visas for their siblings. Still, clearing the existing backlog of family-based visa petitions is a key goal of this proposal. And the existing V-visa program will expand to cover sponsorship of single adult children and married adult children under age 31.
8. Lower-skilled immigrant workers will be eligible for the new W-Visa. The W- Visa will cover people working in the service sectors as well as agriculture. Employers can petition the government to allow 20,000 such workers beginning in 2015, with this number rising as high as 75,000 within four years (The construction industry is limited to 15,000 workers a year). Immigrants on W-visas can move to other employers if they choose, and will be eligible for residency and citizenship. W-Visa immigrants may not be hired to replace striking American workers. Once the W-Visa program is operational, the much-maligned H2A visa program for seasonal agricultural workers will end.
9. No more Diversity Visas. The Senate proposal will end the “Diversity Lottery,” which allots 55,000 random visas to countries that are underrepresented in our immigration system. But people who were selected for the 2013 or 2014 Diversity Visas will still be eligible to receive them.
10. No immigration equality for same-sex couples. To the almost certain disappointment of the LGBT community and their allies, the Senate plan contains no provisions for immigration equality for same-sex couples.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.