After months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight senators is poised to offer a sweeping bill to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws this week, taking advantage of a changed political alignment that, for the first time in nearly a generation, appears to have opened the way for comprehensive legislation.
The bill would chart a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million people in this country without proper legal status, spend billions of dollars more on border security, create new legal guest worker programs for low-income jobs and farm labor, require new verification measures for most companies hiring new workers and significantly expand overall immigration to the U.S. for the next decade, according to an outline obtained by The Times’ Washington bureau.
The legalization program would amount to the largest such effort any nation has attempted, affecting more than three times as many people as the Reagan-era immigration reform law. But it is only one part of the legislation, and perhaps not the portion with the greatest impact.
The agricultural workforce — where half the workers currently have no legal status — would be transformed by a new guest worker program that is designed to bring more than 300,000 immigrant farmworkers to the nation’s fields over the next decade and provide field workers an expedited pathway to citizenship. A new visa program for housecleaners, landscapers and other low-skill occupations would be created, while high-tech industries would be allowed to double the number of foreign workers they use.
All told, the country’s current inflow of about 1 million legal immigrants a year could grow by half over the next decade.
The bill also would probably spur a spending spree on the Southwest border as the government rolls out more surveillance technology, including unmanned drones and military-grade radar, to detect people crossing into the United States.
Although Congress has deadlocked repeatedly on immigration policy, leading figures in both parties expect that the legislation, expected to run hundreds of pages, stands an excellent chance of approval in the Senate, which plans to begin debate on it next month, and that some version of it could become law by year’s end.
That would make the effort the first comprehensive immigration overhaul since the 1986 amnesty law signed by then-President Reagan.
“I think we are on the cusp of history here. This is a really big deal,” said Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “We are operating in a Washington environment that is so dysfunctional, so political, so partisan and yet on this issue…. eight members came together on this from a full ideological spectrum — that is historic.”
Opponents warn that American workers will see their wages erode in the face of greater competition from migrants. Supporters counter that the bill would benefit the U.S. economy by bringing the current unauthorized population out of legal limbo and by providing a steady flow of legal workers for industries with labor shortages.
The legislative work in Washington reflects the changed dynamic in the country, as polls show a majority of Americans back some type of legal status for those living here without proper authorization.
Rather than viewing immigrants as a threat or burden to society, increasing numbers of Americans hold positive views of the contributions immigrants make, polls show.
That shift, along with the growing power of Latino voters, many of whom have made immigration reform a priority, appears to have broken a deadlock on the issue. After the overwhelming Latino vote for President Obama in 2012, many Republican strategists decided their party had little choice but to embrace reform. They tapped Sen. Marco Rubio, the rising tea party Republican from Florida, as their front man in talks with Democratic leaders and the handful of Republicans who had previously supported a legalization plan.
“What we have seen is, I think, a remarkable — in Washington — level of consensus between and support for bipartisan and comprehensive immigration reform,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday.
For months, the eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — have been meeting privately, often in the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) steps from the Senate floor, as the contours of the bill took shape.
Securing the nation’s borders against illegal crossings has long been a cornerstone of reform efforts. The new plan requires a secure border with Mexico before the other provisions of the bill, including the citizenship proposals, could take hold. It provides $3 billion to increase surveillance, including the use of unmanned aerial drones. The Southwest border would be considered secure if, within five years, 90% of those attempting to cross illegally are turned back in areas that have had more than 30,000 apprehensions a year.
An additional $1.5 billion would go toward a double-layer fence constructed with help from the National Guard. Money would also go to local authorities to prevent border crossings, to triple prosecutions in some areas, and to dispatch 3,500 more customs agents.
After five years, if the border security goals remain unmet, a commission of border state governors and attorneys general will be given money and authority to implement further measures. “We’re confident it’s achievable,” Rubio said over the weekend in a Fox News interview.
Gaining citizenship would be a decadelong and costly process that would be tied to the border security provisions.
Six months after the bill becomes law, most of the 11 million people in the country without authorization — those who have been in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, and have no serious criminal record — would be eligible to apply for a new probationary legal status. That would allow them to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. They would be required to pay a $500 initial penalty as well as an application fee and back taxes. The probationary status would be good for six years and could then be renewed after payment of another $500 penalty.
At the end of 10 years, if the border security targets have been hit, those on probationary status would be able to pay another $1,000 to apply for a green card, which provides permanent legal residency. Three years later, they could apply for citizenship. Those granted probationary status would not be eligible for government benefits during the decadelong wait.
If the government does not meet its border security targets, people could stay on probationary status, but would not be allowed to apply for citizenship.
Two groups would get a special expedited citizenship path — young people who were brought to this country illegally as children, and agricultural workers, who would become eligible for green cards within five years if they commit to keep working in the fields, and would be eligible for citizenship after that.
During the 10 years, the government would clear up the current backlog of people who have applied for visas to be reunited with family members already living in the U.S. Roughly 4 million such applications are on file, although government officials say an unknown number of those represent people who already have entered the country illegally or who have given up plans to immigrate.
With the new route to citizenship for some comes closed doors for others. Adult siblings of U.S. citizens will no longer be eligible for a family preference in the visa application process. The bill would eliminate 55,000 “diversity immigrant visas” that are awarded by lottery each year and go largely to migrants from Africa and Eastern Europe.
The U.S. already admits more immigrants than any other country in the world. It is poised to increase that by 50% over the first decade under the draft bill.
Representatives of labor and business hashed out a series of agreements for foreign workers that the senators have folded into their bill. A new visa system, negotiated between theU.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, would bring in as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers for jobs in hospitality, meat packing and other industries.
The government would also set up a new start-up visa program for entrepreneurs and merit visas for high-achieving student workers.
The program would be run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with pay scales set at median industry wages and the number of visas determined by the U.S. unemployment rate and other factors.
Visas for the existing high-tech worker program could nearly double to more than 120,000 per year.
For farmworkers, as many as 337,000 new three-year visas — 122,333 each year for the first three years after the bill becomes law — would be available. After five years, the secretary of Agriculture would set an annual visa limit based on market conditions. Growers would also have to pay transportation and housing costs for workers, but workers’ spouses and children would not be eligible to join them.
The law would also require all employers to check new workers against an electronic-verification system. The requirement, which could cost the government $1.5 billion to implement, would be phased in over five years.
Passage in the Senate could give momentum to a similarly bipartisan group in the House, which is preparing its own bill.
“We need to design a system that is flexible going into the future so that immigration can serve as a real competitive advantage for us economically and as a society,” said Doris Meissner, who was head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, and is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. “All the more reason to grab the moment.”