US: Standards for Immigration Reform. What does it mean?

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By Alex Owen

The leadership of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives in Washington has published a statement about its intentions for immigration reform. It is a short document, only a page long and short on detail. But what could it actually mean for the US immigration system.

  1. 'A step-by-step common sense approach'

    This means that the House will not vote for the comprehensive immigration reform bill already passed by the Senate in June 2013. This bill was seen by the White House as a compromise between Republicans and Democrats but Republican leaders in the House seem to believe that they will not be able to persuade right-wing Republicans backed by the radical Tea Party Faction to support any bill that provides for a 'pathway to citizenship' for all illegal immigrants.
  2. 'Border Security must come first'

    There is going to be even more spending on US border security. The US government spent $18bn on border security in 2013. This is more than on any other branch of law enforcement.
  3. 'Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System'

    This will mean yet more government spending and greater use of biometric data at airports and other ports as well as within the US itself.
  4. Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement

    The statement calls for 'a workable electronic employment verification system'. This will mean a radical expansion of the E-Verify employment checking system which allows workers to check the immigration status of prospective employees before employing them.
  5. Reforms to the Legal Immigration System

    This paragraph will be of most interest to readers. The statement says 'For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based migration'.

    The Republicans have stated that they want to refocus the US immigration system on workers. This is not surprising. The US issues over 1,000,000 permanent residence visas (known as 'green cards') each year. In 2011, only 6% of these visas were issued in employment-based categories. This compares poorly with Canada and Australia where, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, about 26% of new permanent residents were granted work-related and skills-related visas.

    The mention of 'pure luck' is a reference to the US's Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery Program which distributes 55,000 permanent resident visas (normally known as 'green cards') annually by means of a lottery. Only people who have completed high school education can apply and they must also come from a country with a historically low level of immigration to the US.

    Republicans have been opposed to the lottery (also known as 'The green card lottery') for some time and introduced the STEM Jobs Act in 2012 which would have closed the lottery and issued the 55,000 visas to foreign graduates of US universities in the STEM subjects; (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Sanwar Ali of said 'I would expect the Republicans to propose the abolition of the Green Card Lottery again at some point this year'

    The legal immigration section of the Republicans' statement contains only a short mention of temporary immigration. It says 'The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States'.

    The H-1B temporary work visa for workers in 'specialty occupations' is not mentioned by name in the Republican statement. However, it seems likely that Republicans will introduce legislation to increase the number of H-1B visas. In 2013, Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio co-sponsored the Immigration Innovation Bill in the Senate. If it had become law, it would have immediately increased the number of H-1Bs from 65,000 to 115,000 annually. In times of high demand, the cap could have risen to 300,000.

    The statement also signals that the Republicans will introduce a new temporary visa for agricultural workers.

  6. 'Youth'

    The statement says that the Republicans will allow some illegal aliens to become US citizens. In order to be eligible for consideration illegal residents would have to;

    • Have come to the US as children with their parents
    • Have a clean criminal record
    • Have obtained a college degree or served in the US military
  7. 'Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law'

    The statement concludes by saying that other illegal immigrants, who do not qualify for citizenship by virtue of paragraph 6 above may still be allowed to 'live legally and without fear in the U.S'. These people would have to first 'admit culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics and be able to support themselves and their families'. They would not be eligible for any benefits.
So far, the Republicans have released only this very vague statement of intent. We will have to wait to see the details.

Even when the details emerge however, we will have to wait and see whether the Democrats are prepared to compromise to meet the Republicans half-way. On 1st February, the Democratic leader in the House Nancy Pelosi indicated that, for her at least, some compromises would never be acceptable.

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