Gang of Eight Senators Say Immigration Bill Is ‘Common-sense Approach’

BY Cassie M. Chew  April 18, 2013 at 4:27 PM EDT

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and their colleagues in the so-called Gang of Eight, held a news conference Thursday to detail the 844-page immigration reform legislation, officially released earlier this week.

In a joint statement Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado say the bill is a “common-sense approach” that is “vital in order to secure America’s borders, advance our economic growth, and provide fuller access to the American dream.

“Our bipartisan proposal is a starting point, and will be strengthened by good-faith input and ideas from across the ideological spectrum. We look forward to multiple Senate hearings on this bill, an open committee process with amendments, and a full and fair debate in the Senate.”

The Border Security and Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 lays out a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S., reforms the family and employment-based visa in favor of a merit based system, creates a new category of visas for low-income workers and provides framework and funding to secure the southwestern border between the U.S. and Mexico.

Border Security

The bill establishes a security and fencing fund to monitor “high-risk” areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. The plan features $4.5 billion in funding to implement this a strategy to control the borders to include spending on surveillance, additional border patrol agents at and between entry ports along the border as well as unmanned aerial surveillance positioned along the border. Funds also would be used to identify where fencing deployed along the border.

Pathway to Citizenship

The bill establishes procedure for undocumented people living in this country to eventually become citizens. Law-abiding non-citizens who arrived in the U.S. before December 31, 2011 would be allowed apply for registered provisional immigrant status. Applicants would be required to pay a $500 fee for a six-year renewable term. After 10 years they would be eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident status based on criteria that would include working in the U.S., paying taxes and a demonstrated knowledge of civics and English.

The bill also would reshape the current family and employment-based routes of immigration toward one based on merit. The bill proposes creating two family preference categories. The bill would allocate 40 percent of the country’s employment-based visas to people who hold advance degrees in science, technology and mathematics, have a job offer in a related field and earned the degree within five years of filing the petition.
In the fifth year after enactment the bill would introduce a merit-based visa which awards points to individuals based on their education, employment and how long they have lived in the U.S. with those earning the most points receiving visas. In its initial year 120,000 merit-based visas would be available with the number increasing by 5 percent each year with a maximum of 250,000 visas, if demand exceeds supply and the U.S. unemployment rate is below 8.5 percent.

A group of eight senators on Wednesday filed an 844-page bill that would respond to both political and business interests for reforming the nation’s immigration policy.

Visa Reform

Additionally, the bill would raise the base number of H-1B visas to 110,000 from 65,000 with an option for the number to go as high as 180,000 based on the demand for candidates with specific skill sets. To prevent employers from choosing immigrants over American candidates, the bill would require employers to pay higher wages for H-1B workers and to first advertise the job to Americans at this higher salary before hiring someone in the country on an H-1B visa.

The bill also establishes a new non-immigrant classification of visas for low-skilled workers. These workers would be able to work in the U.S. for an initial period of three years with the ability to renew their status every three years. W-Visa holders may not be unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days and would be required to leave the country if unable to find employment.

Despite the collaboration on the bill from members on both sides of the aisle, lawmakers say enforcing the borders, as well any new pathway to citizenship, may be a deal breaker even among those that say they are in favor of immigration reform.

For example, Sen. Ron Paul, R-Ky., has signaled his intent to introduce at least one amendment to the bill.

“Each year in order for the reform to go forward, there has to be a report on border security…It should include statistics on how many are returned who come here illegally, how many are getting background checks,” Rand said.

The policy also is being drafted at a time when a booming economy in Mexico has led to reduction in the flow of immigrants across the southwestern border. With a healthy middle class in Mexico experts say that Mexico is better able to invest more in education, and offer a better life to its children.

“They went through some major economic difficulties in the 1990s, but they made changes and they got the fundamentals right and they are now really steaming along,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program policy at the Migration Policy Institute. Meissner served as commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service between during the Clinton administration.

“More people are finishing high school. More and more people are looking at their future in Mexico as a future in Mexico as compared to going North.”

The 2012 election cycle pushed the issue to the top of the list for many lawmakers this year after results of the presidential election illustrated the political power of Hispanics and Latinos at the polls.

The bill also comes after pressure from industry which has indicated a need for workers to fill positions in science and technology and to also fill jobs in the agricultural industry.