Immigration Reform’s Bold First Step

Early this morning [April 17], a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a long-awaited immigration bill after months of wrangling in a pressurized political environment. Their compromise is a complicated, but fairly balanced, set of reforms to the existing system. The bill, entitled “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” contains three main emphases: border security, legalization, and admissions. While we take time to pore over the details of the 844 page bill, highlighted below are some of the more novel provisions of the proposal. 

Stronger Border Security with New Consequences. While enforcement goals have always been to reduce the number of illegal crossings into the United States, the bill proposes increased surveillance and security on the border and measures its effectiveness. More resources will be appropriated to achieve and maintain an effective strategy. What’s new in this bill is that undocumented immigrants would be able to apply for temporary legal status only after certain security metrics are met.  

Legalization of Three Groups. The second emphasis is to bring eligible undocumented immigrants into a registered provisional immigrant status (RPI), one that would give them the right to live and work in the U.S. and travel abroad. In order to qualify, immigrants must be able to show they have lived in the United State continuously since December 31, 2011, pay a penalty and application fees, and pass a criminal check. What’s new in this bill is that there are three tracks to legalization. After a five-year provisional status, childhood entrants (a.k.a. the “Dreamers”) will be eligible for green cards followed by immediate citizenship. Agricultural workers will also have an accelerated path to a green card after five years of work. For the rest, RPI will last a minimum of 10 years after which they are eligible to transition to a green card through a new merit-based visa system.

Reorganizing Admissions. The third emphasis, on future admissions, would shrink the share of permanent visas allotted based on family ties and expand the share of employment-based visas, eventually equalizing the two. Multiple cross-cutting policies would open up spaces for superlative workers in a range of high-demand fields and increase visas for entrepreneurs and investors. At the same time, reductions to existing categories of relatives and elimination of the diversity visa will shift the focus of the admissions program toward workers with America’s economic competitiveness in mind. What’s new in this bill is that, five years after enactment, “merit-based immigration” will play a greater role as immigrants will qualify based on education, employment, length of residence, and other considerations.

The intricate temporary visa program we have now will become more complex. The proposal alters requirements of high-skilled H-1B visas and allows for an adjustable cap. A brand new “W visa” creates a registry for employers looking to hire lower skilled workers, providing three years (renewable) of work during which time a worker can bring family members. A Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research will be established to identify shortage occupations and determine the annual cap for the new visa, and report on every aspect of the immigration system related to employment.

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The arrival of the bill has already unleashed a flurry of reactions and questions. No matter the details, the bill recognizes three key tenets: immigrants are vital to our economy; we need a policy that is flexible to meet the needs of a dynamic economy; and immigrants are, ultimately, a positive force to be embraced.

A long legislative process lies ahead. No doubt, Congress has a lot of work to do to get this right.