US Senators release draft comprehensive immigration reform bill

The so called 'Gang of Eight' has released details of the draft immigration reform bill it has been working on since January. The Gang of Eight are eight senators, four Democrat and four Republican, who have agreed to cooperate to draft a compromise bill which will reform the US immigration system which politicians on both sides agree is 'broken'.

A summary of the bill was released on Tuesday 16th April 2013. Last week, two of the Gang, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Lindsay Graham had indicated that a deal might be close.

The draft bill is 844 pages long and contains a great deal of detail but the main points are

  • The Department for Homeland Security (DHL) must submit a plan to secure the US's Mexican border within 180 days of the bill being passed. The DHL plan will have a budget of $4.5bn and will lay out how the DHL intends to secure the entire length of the border using drones, increased numbers of staff, fences, etc.
  • If the immigration reform bill comes into law, illegal immigrants who have been living continuously in the US since December 31st 2011 can register for provisional legal resident status. They will then be able to work for any US employer and travel in and out of the US freely. They will not be able to claim any social security benefits. They will have to pay a $500 fine for illegally entering the US. They will also have to pay all their back taxes and a fee for processing their applications. Anyone convicted of a major crime (a felony) or three minor crimes (misdemeanours) will be barred from registration.
  • Those who register will be able to apply for permanent resident status when the border has been secured to the satisfaction of Congress or after ten years, whichever is sooner.
  • After five years, it will become compulsory for US employers to check all potential employees using the eVerify system before employing them. eVerify allows US employers to check whether potential employees are authorised to work in the US.
  • A system must be established to allow the US immigration authorities to track people with temporary visas such as H-1B visas, L-1 visas and visitor visas so that it will be clear how many have overstayed their visas.
  • There will be a new 'W-visa' for low-skilled workers such as agricultural workers. There will be a cap on the number of these visas that can be issued.
  • There will be a new visa for entrepreneurs who wish to start companies in the US.
  • The number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' visas issued annually will rise immediately from 65,000 to 110,000 with a possibility that the number could rise as high as 180,000 annually. Firms which rely heavily on H-1B visas such as Indian outsourcing firms will be asked to pay an additional fee of $5,000 to $10,000 per visa, depending on the proportion of their workers which is made up of H-1B visa workers.
  • Some illegal immigrants brought to the US as children will be allowed to apply for permanent resident status (green card) in five years.
    • So will some agricultural workers.

Further security may allow Republican support

The focus on security is notable not least because the US already spent $18bn on border security in 2012. However, the calculation of the Gang of Eight seems to be that a concentration on yet further security measures may persuade right-wing Republicans to support the bill.

Many right-wing Republicans oppose the creation of 'a pathway to citizenship' both because they consider that to do so would create an effective amnesty for those who had entered the country illegally and reward illegal behaviour. They also fear that to do so would make the problem of illegal immigration worse by encouraging yet more illegal immigrants to come in future. The concentration on border security seems designed to ensure that there can be no further influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico.

However, if this was the intention, it has not worked. Roy Beck, executive director of the anti-immigration organisation NumbersUSA said 'I never expected the bill to be this bad…Everything in this bill is about bringing in more people to compete for American jobs. This whole bill is written as if the nation is in the throes of a terrible labour shortage'.

Republican member of the House of Representatives Steve King said the bill was 'aggressive and outrageous amnesty. It is instant legalization of all illegal immigrants in the US with very few exceptions.'

President Obama, who promised to make immigration reform one of his priorities in 2013 said that the bill contained 'common sense steps that the majority of Americans support'. He said that the bill was a 'compromise' and that no one, not even the President would get everything they wanted but, in a statement, he said 'it is largely consistent with the principles I have repeatedly laid out'

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