In the immigration-reform legislation soon to be released by the Senate’s Gang of Eight, there will be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — but it will require proof of the border’s having been secured, and it will involve an arduous process that could easily take two decades for those eligible.
The mark-up process for the Gang’s legislation will begin during the week of May 6. There will be no limits placed on how many amendments can be added, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. These are the broad outlines of the legislation:
Modernizing the legal-immigration system. There will be a shift away from the current family-based system, and more emphasis on giving visas to high-skilled immigrants, particularly those who have Ph.D.s in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. There will be a new visa created for guest workers, called the W visa, which will be a three-year permit given to low-skilled workers. There’s still debate over how many workers should be allowed in the construction and agricultural industries. One program will specifically be for agricultural workers: They will have to show they have worked in agriculture in the past, and they will have to commit to staying in agriculture work for five years.
Securing the border and ending illegal immigration. The Gang has focused on the border with Mexico, and did not consider serious changes to the Canadian border. If the legislation passes, the Department of Homeland Security will be required to be able to surveil the entire border at all times (using technology, such as drones) and to be successfully catching nine out of ten people trying to cross the border. DHS will be given six months to come up with a plan to accomplish this, and then must issue a notice of commencement that they have begun to implement the enforcement policies. When five years have passed, DHS must be meeting these goals; if not, a commission will then devise additional policies that DHS will have to implement.
The legislation will also mandate universal E-Verify, which all employers, including small businesses, will have to use. Citizens and green-card holders can produce certain driver’s licenses or passports as proof of legal status; non-citizens, who do not have green cards, will have a national ID card. There will be financial penalties for non-compliant businesses, and being caught more than once will trigger additional penalties.
In addition, all airports and seaports in the U.S. will have to track people both entering and exiting on visas, so that there is a way to determine who has overstayed his or her visa.
Legalization process for current illegal immigrants. Those who are illegally here will have two options: Return to their native country and be able to apply for a green card in five years, or remain in the U.S. and apply for temporary legalization status. In order to be eligible for the temporary-legalization process, immigrants will have to show that they have been in the country continuously for at least two years, for which documents such as medical records and utility bills will be accepted as proof. They will also need to pass a background check; those with, say, speeding tickets would probably be fine, but a felony conviction would not be permissible. One contentious issue among the senators is whether immigrants who are clearly part of gangs but who have no criminal record will be allowed to obtain legal status.
Those who are given temporary legal status will be required to pay a fine and back taxes. The exact amount of the fine isn’t determined; it won’t be as small as a few hundred dollars, but nor will it be unduly high (like, say, $10,000). For those who can’t afford to pay the fine all at once, there will be an option for it to be deducted as part of their payroll taxes. Immigrants will also have to prove they can support themselves; what level of income constitutes that ability is still being debated (the Gang is currently considering 125 percent of the federal poverty level).
Those with temporary legal status will be allowed to be unemployed about four to six months; longer than that, they risk losing legal status. Anyone who is no longer able to be self-sufficient and needs federal assistance would lose legal status and be eligible for deportation. While Obamacare’s benefits apply to all who are legally present in the United States, the Gang has agreed that those with legal status through this legislation will be an exception, and will not be able to get the benefits of the health-care law.
Illegal immigrants will be able to apply for legal status when DHS issues the notice of commencement, indicating that it’s begun implementing its enforcement policies. Then, after ten years have passed and there is proof that the border-security measures have been successfully implemented, the relevant immigrants will be permitted to apply for green cards. They could then in turn apply for citizenship after the normal three-to-five-year period that follows getting a green card. While in theory illegal immigrants could become citizens in 13 to 15 years, bureaucratic delays make it unlikely that the process will take less than two decades.
While many details remain fluid, the above framework is what National Review hears is the core of the Gang’s legislative package.