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US illegal immigration on the rise

The latest figures from the Pew Hispanic Research Center suggest that the number of illegal aliens living in the US has been rising in recent years. This is likely to cause Congressional opponents of immigration reform to harden their stance against immigration bills in Washington this autumn.

The Pew Hispanic Research Center says that it believes that the number of illegal immigrants in the US has risen by 400,000 since 2009. In 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Trends Project, there were 11.3m people living illegally in the US.

For some years, Pew's research had shown that the number of illegal residents in the US had been falling slightly, perhaps as a result of the recession which hit the US in 2008. But Pew researchers have found that the figure is now rising again. 'With the recession ending, the decrease in illegal immigration has stopped' said Jeffrey Passel, a researcher at the Pew Center.

Rise in immigration will have impact on US immigration reform

This is bound to have an effect on the chances of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013 being passed by the House of Representatives this autumn. This bill was drafted by the Gang of Eight; a group of eight senators, four Republicans and four Democrats. The bill was intended to mend the US's 'broken' immigration system in one go.

Political commentators from left and right have said that the US's immigration system is 'broken'. Businesses complain that they cannot get the skilled workers they need.

For example, there is a limit on the number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' temporary work visas that can be granted each year. Currently, only 65,000 H-1B visas can go to those with Bachelor's degrees and a further 20,000 can be issued to those with advanced degrees.

Applicants for green cards can wait for over ten years

In addition, It can take over ten years for some applicants for employment based permanent resident visas (known as 'green cards') to get their visas (in the interim, they can renew their H-1B visas) but there are fears that this is making the US a less attractive destination for immigrants who may go elsewhere.

On top of all this, there is the question of what should be done about the 11m people living illegally in the US. Some, particularly Republicans, believe they should be caught and deported. Others believe that they should be able to get onto a pathway towards a green card and perhaps, eventually, citizenship.

During the presidential election campaign in 2012, President Obama promised to act to reform every aspect of the US immigration system if he was elected for a second term. Since his re-election, he has lent his support to a bill drafted by eight senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, which would introduce comprehensive reform.

Provisions of the bill

The bill is known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act. Its main provisions are
  • A $4.5bn increase in spending on Mexican border security over 5 years
  • A 'pathway to citizenship' would be established for most illegal immigrants. They would have to pay back taxes, learn English and could then apply for citizenship. The process would take about 13 years
  • The number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' visas would increase immediately from 65,000 to 130,000 per year and could rise to 180,000 in times of high demand. The cap on H-1B visas for PhD and Doctorate students, currently set at 20,000, would be removed
  • All graduates of US universities with 'advanced degrees' would be able to apply for permanent resident visas (known as green cards). There would be no cap and so green cards would be issued speedily (within a year)
  • US businesses would be required to check all new employees against the E-Verify system to check that they are entitled to work in the US
  • There would be a new 'w-visa' for unskilled workers in agriculture and construction
The bill has been passed by the Senate but must also be passed by the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, (known as 'the House') if it is to become law.

'Pathway' would reward illegal immigrants- Republicans

But, because the House is controlled by the Republicans, this is by no means a formality. Many House Republicans say that the creation of a 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants would be, in effect, an amnesty which would reward them for illegally entering the country (or, illegally staying in the country after their visas have expired).

They have also argued that, if this were to happen, then many more immigrants would live illegally in the US in the expectation of being granted citizenship after a future amnesty.

They say that, therefore, there should not be an amnesty and, if there is one, the US border with Mexico must be secured to prevent further migration. Some House Republicans have said that they would pass the bill but only if the 'pathway to citizenship' is removed.

'Pathway' is essential to reform - Democrats

Democrats say that the 'pathway' provision is an essential part of the bill and will not agree to its removal.

The fact that the number of people in the country illegally appears to be on the rise again can only intensify this debate. In recent years, some supporters of reform have argued that the numbers of illegal residents have been falling because of the massive amount of money already spent on border security.

The US spent $18bn on border security in 2012, more than any other law enforcement body.

Debate set to continue

The debate will no doubt continue in Congress. Some Republicans are suggesting that the attempt to come up with a comprehensive reform bill should be abandoned and a series of smaller bills dealing with individual problems with the system should be introduced instead.

Democrats, on the whole, would like to see a comprehensive bill as they believe that, by tying the illegal immigration issue to that of employment-based immigration is their best opportunity to see the issue dealt with.

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