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US Immigration reform bill passes the Senate

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Comprehensive immigration reform came a step closer in the US on Thursday 28th June 2013 after the US Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013. For the Act to become law, it still needs to be passed by the other house of Congress, the House of Representatives (known as 'the House').

The law would create a 'pathway to citizenship' allowing many of the 11.5m illegal immigrants living in the US to apply to become citizens. It would also greatly increase the number of H-1B temporary work visas issued annually and allow many foreign graduates of US universities with doctorates and PhDs to apply for US permanent resident visas.

The Senate passed the proposed law by a majority of 68 votes to 32. The House will vote on the bill in July and it will need the support of at least 60% of Representatives to become law. This amounts to 261 of the 435 Representatives. In the House, there are 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats so it will need the support of at least 60 Republicans. This is by no means assured.

'We're going to do our own bill' – Boehner

The Republican leader in the House, John Boehner, previously said that he was in favour of reform of the immigration system but he has also said that he will not send forward the Senate bill for a vote in the House. He told the press 'we're going to do our own bill…that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people'.

This could mean that the draft law that emerges from House committees has been amended so heavily that it is almost unrecognisable. Many Republicans are vehemently opposed to reform. In particular, they see the 'pathway to citizenship' as a reward for criminal behaviour (entering or remaining in the US illegally) and also fear that illegal immigrants who become citizens are likely to vote Democrat. One Representative, Lamar Smith of Texas, has already suggested that the final House bill may no longer include provisions for the creation of a pathway to citizenship; for most supporters of reform, its most important provision.

Meanwhile, the pressure from pro-reform activists is likely to build on Representatives. One pro-reform Democratic Representative, Luis Gutierrez, said 'I don't think the House of Representatives quite understands how broad and deep [support for reform] is because it's been perpetually stationed outside the Senate for the last four months. Well now, they're closing down camp there [outside the Senate] and setting up camp here [outside the House].

Schumer endorses million-person pro-reform rally

A Democrat senator, Charles Schumer, has endorsed a planned million-person march to Washington by pro-reform activists. The President is calling on the House to pass the bill soon.

President Obama made immigration reform a priority for his second term. Republicans in the House may see that as yet another reason to vote against it. On the other hand, a recent Gallup poll published on 19th June suggests that 87% of US voters would vote in favour of the establishment of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants providing that immigrants

  • Wait for 'a long period before becoming citizens
  • Pay back taxes and a penalty for entering the country illegally
  • Pass a background check and
  • Learn English.
These are all requirements for those who wish to become US citizens that are already in the bill passed by the Senate. Some Republican Representatives may believe that they would be foolhardy to ignore such clear poll results.

Provisions of the bill

Te bill would
  • Create a 'pathway to citizenship' for most illegal immigrants with no criminal record. They will be required to pay back taxes and a fee of $500. The process would take over ten years. They will also be required to learn English.
  • Massively increase spending on border security and would provide for a doubling of the number of border guards, the creation of a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and border patrols by unmanned 'drone' aircraft.
  • Require all US employers to check new employees against the E-Verify database to ensure that they are entitled to work in the US.
  • Immediately increase the number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' visas available. Under the current system, there are 65,000 H-1Bs available for annually for foreign workers in 'specialty occupations' with masters' degrees (or 'degree equivalence') and 20,000 for those with PhDs and doctorates. If the bill is passed, there will be no cap for those with PhDs and doctorates and the number of H-1Bs for those with masters' degrees will rise immediately to 130,000 and could rise as high as 180,000 in times of high demand.
  • Allow foreign graduates of US universities with PhDs or doctorates to apply immediately for a US permanent resident visa (colloquially known as a 'green card'
  • Establish a new 'w-visa' for low-skilled workers in construction and agriculture.
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