What the Immigration Reform Bill Does

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The United States Senate Thursday passed sweeping immigration reform with S. 744.  Formally called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” it was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of eight Senators known as the “Gang of Eight,:” and received resounding “no” votes from Texas' own Senators Cornyn and Cruz.

As Burnt Orange Report's Emily Cadik wrote on the bill's passage:

“In addition to the 13-year pathway to citizenship, the bill implements security benchmarks for those seeking green cards, bolsters border security, requires workplace verification for employers, and creates a new visa program for lesser-skilled workers. While it may not be a perfect bill, it's our best shot at allowing 11 million people working, living, learning and raising families in the U.S. a chance to come out of the shadows.”

To see what happens with the bill next, read below the jump.Now the bill has to go over to the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner and other House Republicans have already declared the bill dead on arrival.  

To see what they're giving up, however, it's important to revisit the provisions of the bipartisan Senate bill, and the state of immigration in Texas today.

Immigration in Texas

How doesn't this bill affect Texas? According to a fact sheet from the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., immigrants – and a large number of them – are an indispensible part of Texas life.  Texas can claim an immigrant population equal to roughly one-sixth of population of the entire state.  Approximately 6.7% of the state's population is comprised of undocumented immigrants.

Moreover, 21% of the workforce of Texas is made up of immigrants, with 9% of the workforce being undocumented immigrants, while $1.6 billion of state and local taxes paid in Texas in 2010 were sourced from undocumented immigrants.  According to studies, if undocumented immigrants were to leave Texas, economic activity in the state would drop by $69.3 billion, with more than 400,000 jobs never to return.

Immigration Reform – Heightened Security and 13 Years to Citizenship

The reform bill is built as a balance between economic reality and political pandering with regard to security. First, the economics, i.e.: visas and status adjustments. The bill creates a new program called the Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) program granting undocumented immigrants RPI status.  Undocumented immigrants can apply for RPI status if they meet the following requirements:

•They have been in the U.S. since December 31, 2011;

•They have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors;

•They pay their assessed taxes;

•They pass background checks; and

•They pay penalty fees.

There are other requirements, not listed here, and persons with RPI status will not be eligible for a raft of public benefits.  RPI status has a six-year duration, with an option to renew for another six years. Renewal for RPI status is virtually mandatory as persons with RPI status cannot apply for a green card (Lawful Permanent Residence) until they have been in RPI status for not less than ten years.  

To get the green card, they will have to show English proficiency, maintain employment and demonstrate that they will not be wards of the state.  After holding a green card for three years, that immigrant would be eligible to apply for citizenship, for a best-case scenario of 13 years from initial RPI application to citizenship application.

DREAMers

DREAMers were rolled into the reform bill as well. However, DREAMers only have to sit out five years of RPI status, rather than the full ten, and they can apply for citizenship as soon as they have received their green card.  The basic requirements for DREAMers is as follows:  

•An applicant must have entered the U.S. before he or she turned 16;

•An applicant must meet the five-year RPI threshold;

•An applicant must have earned a high-school diploma or GED;

•An applicant must have completed at least two years of college or four years of military service;

•An applicant must have passed an English test and background checks.

Work Visas

The bill strikes down caps on immigrants from specific countries for employment-based visas, but the global cap remains at about 140,000 per year; spouses and children of employment-based immigrants, however, are exempt from the cap. The bill also introduces a W-visa program which acknowledges the transient nature of agricultural work and allows farm workers on the renewable three-year W-visas to move from job to job provided that their respective employers are enrolled in the program and so designated by the Department of Agriculture.  

Border Surge

The bill could never have passed without providing for stringent new security measures, and the bill's mandates for border security reflect that.  According to a guide published by the IPC, the bill calls for 24-hour surveillance of the border (including the use of drones), dedicates $1.5 billion to a border fence strategy, $3 billion to a border security strategy, and a contingent $2 billion to be used if needed. The bill calls for effective control of the border; “effective control” means a 90% effectiveness rate in preventing illegal crossings, with that benchmark to be met in no more than five-year years.  

Interestingly, as part of ramping up security along the border with Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have to place rescue beacons along the southern border to help prevent migrant deaths and start reporting and monitoring migrant deaths in the desert.

Despite some positive developments, however, border security will be linked to the ability of immigrants already here to adjust their respective statuses.  Until the federal government and their agents and contractors can certify that the border is “secure,” RPI immigrants will be barred from applying for green cards.  Until factors out of their control are remedied and meet restrictive standards, immigrants will be unable to move toward citizenship despite their best, good faith efforts to do so.  Onerous as it is, this is better than the proposal put forth by Texas Sen. John Cornyn in his RESULTS Amendment, which would have extended this waiting period to nearly ten years before any status could be adjusted.  However, the Brookings Institution, reported Tuesday that Cornyn's amendment had been tabled and replaced by the Corker-Hoeven compromise, which was rolled into the current bill.  

Special thanks go to the non-partisan Immigration Policy Center, a division of the American Immigration Council, for their assistance and counsel in reviewing the immigration reform bill.

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