Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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As a senior partner of a New York City immigration law firm I was pleased to see the U.S. Senate pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (S. 744) on June 26, 2013.  It is the first bill in a generation aimed at fundamentally reforming U.S. immigration policy.  However, the enactment of the bill into law will require the cooperation of a good number of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.  In closed sessions with House and Senate Democrats, President Obama assured the members of his party that “they are on the right side of history” with respect to immigration and other matters. 

To recap, the U.S. Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) to “...secure the border, modernize and streamline our current legal immigration system, while creating a tough but fair legalization program for individuals who are currently here.” The bill includes goals called triggers that must be attained before the next steps in the bill are enacted. Below are highlights of the five sections of the bill:

Border Security (Title 1). The U.S. border with Mexico is secured by:

  • Doubling the number of border patrol agents to nearly 40,000 over 10 years.
  • Completing 700 miles of fencing.
  • Adding surveillance technology to track border-crossers.
  • Implementing an electronic exit system.

Immigrant Visas (Title 2). Visa changes include:

  • Registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status that is renewable every six years for undocumented immigrants who have been in the country on or before December 31, 2011; have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors; pay taxes; pass a background check; and pay penalty fees.  They must also be admissible.
  • After 10 years in RPI status, they will have the right to apply for a Green Card (LPR).  After three years in LPR status, they may apply for citizenship.
  • Permanent residency for DREAMers who came to the U.S. before age  16; hold a high school diploma or GED; have completed at least two years of college or four years in the military.
  •  “Blue-card” status for up to eight years for undocumented agricultural workers if they also meet criminal and admissibility standards required of RPI applicants. They would be eligible for green card after five years. 
  • “Merit-based” point system that allocates immigrant visas based on high scores for skills, employment history and educational credentials. 

Interior Enforcement (Title 3). Changes to immigrant law within the country include:

  • Stiffer civil or criminal penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
  • Mandatory use by all employers of E-Verify System within five years.
  • Elimination of asylum seekers’ one-year application deadline and barriers to family reunification.
  • Entitlement to work permits within 180 days of applying for asylum.
  • Enhancement of undocumented immigrants’ due-process protections, including appointing attorneys to represent unaccompanied minors, the mentally disabled and others.
  • Tougher penalties for undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activities including gang membership and repeat drunk-driving offenses.

Reforms to Nonimmigrant Visa Programs (Title 4).

  • H-1B annual visas cap was raised from 65,000 to between 115,000 and 180,000, depending on employer demand, unemployment rate and other factors.
  • Creates a three-year renewable W visa for less-skilled workers that is annually capped between 20,000 and 200,000 and permits working at registered non-agricultural jobs. It allows the switching of employers and a path to permanent residency.
  • Creates a three-year X visa (nonimmigrant investors visa) for entrepreneurs to create new U.S. jobs.
  • Would no longer require F-1 student visa holders to show they intend to return to their home country after completing their education.

Future of S. 744

The Republican-dominated House can choose to consider S. 744, another bill, or a number of separate reform bills. If the House passes a bill other than S. 744, a conference committee of appointed senators and House members has to be convened to draft a compromise bill.  Given that Congress began a six-week recess last week, we are at least a couple of months away from seeing any substantive progress on this legislation.

I very much look forward to seeing comprehensive immigration reform enacted in the United States in the near future. It would benefit immigrants and non-immigrants alike in the New York City area, where my firm, Bretz & Coven, LLP, is located, as well as throughout the country.