Confused about the Senate immigration reform bill? VOXXI has you covered. In the first of a three-part series, we break down the Senate’s more than 1,200-page immigration reform bill for you. The next two installments, coming out later this week, will cover the amendments that made the cut, as well as a timeline of recent events that led to the current state of immigration reform.
What is S.744?
The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” or S. 744, is a legislation that aims to reform the U.S. immigration system. A bipartisan group of senators — known as the Gang of Eight — wrote the bill. The group includes: Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Michael Bennet (D-Co.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Where does S.744 stand in Congress?
Sen. Schumer formally introduced the bill on April 17, 2013, and it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for markup. Committee members proposed a total of 301 amendments during markup. Of those amendments, 212 were considered and 141 were adopted. On May 21, the committee voted 13-5 to approve the amended immigration reform bill, and the Senate voted 82-15 on June 11 to begin debating the amended bill on the Senate floor. The immigration bill is currently being debated and amended on the Senate floor.
How many votes were needed to pass S.744?
Bills require a majority — 51 votes — to pass the Senate. But in the case of S.744, it first needed to pass the cloture vote, meaning that senators had to vote to close debate on the bill. This requires 60 votes. With a 68-32 vote, the Senate passed the immigration reform bill.
Now that the Senate has approved S.744, the bill heads to the House for consideration. Members of the House may choose to do one of the following: consider the bill, introduce their own immigration reform bill or consider a number of separate immigration bills. If the House approves an immigration bill that differs from the Senate immigration bill, the two bills will need to be reconciled. This happens via a conference committee of appointed senators and House members who will be in charge of drafting a compromise bill to reconcile the Senate and House bills.
Overview of S.744, the Senate’s immigration reform bill
Title I: Border Security
The bill calls for $3 billion to carry out the Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy, a plan the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must produce within 180 days of S.744’s enactment. The plan includes additional Border Patrol officers, infrastructure and technology.
The goal of the plan is to achieve and maintain “effective control” of the southern border with Mexico, which means there must be at least a 90 percent effectiveness rate in apprehensions across the entire border. If DHS does not achieve “effective control” within five years of the bill being enacted, $2 million will go toward establishing a bipartisan Southern Border Security Commission that would need to come up with recommendations on how to achieve “effective control” of the border.
Another $1.5 billion would be dedicated to the Southern Border Fencing Strategy, a plan DHS must also submit within 180 days of S.744’s enactment. The plan aims to identify areas along the border where fencing, double fencing, infrastructure and technology are needed.
Both strategies — along with the implementation of a mandatory employment verification system and an electronic entry-exit system at all airports and seaports — must be completed and implemented before undocumented immigrants can begin applying to become legal permanent residents.
An amendment added to the immigration reform bill would double the number of Border Patrol agents from 20,000 to nearly 40,000 over a period of 10 years — putting an agent at every 1,000 feet on the border. It would also fund the completion of the 700 miles of double-layered fencing and blanket the Southern border with new surveillance technology to track border-crossers. The amendment was filed by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).
Title II: Immigrant Visas
To be eligible for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status under the immigration reform bill, undocumented immigrants must have been in the U.S. since 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.
Undocumented immigrants can begin applying for RPI status once DHS has commenced implementation of the two border security strategies. RPI status is renewable every six years.
After having an RPI status for at least 10 years, undocumented immigrants may apply for legal permanent residency but only after certain border security metrics have been met. Once they’ve been a legal permanent resident for three years, they can apply to become U.S. citizens.
Undocumented young immigrants who came to the U.S. before turning 16 years old, have a high school diploma or a GED, and either completed at least two years of college or served in the military for at least four years would be able to apply for legal permanent residency after five years of having an RPI status. Through the “blue card” program, undocumented agricultural workers would also qualify for the five-year path to legal permanent residency.
A new merit-based point system would be created to allocate visas to immigrants which takes into account several factors including skills, employment history and educational credentials. More points means a better opportunity at one of the 120,000 to 250,000 visas that would be allocated each year. The point system would help clear the backlog of visa applicants who have been waiting for years to receive an immigrant visa.
Three new agencies would be created to help immigrants integrate into society and apply to become U.S. citizens. The agencies are: Office of Citizenship and New Americans; Task Force on New Americans; and United States Citizenship Foundation.
Title III: Interior Enforcement
All employers would be required to use the employment verification program — known as E-Verify — within five years of S.744’s enactment. Employers who knowingly hire an undocumented immigrant, continue to employ an undocumented immigrant or fail to comply with E-Verify requirements would be subject to increased civil or criminal penalties.
Several issues asylum-seekers face would be addressed, including eliminating the one-year deadline to apply for asylum and making asylum applicants eligible for work permits.
Due-process protections would be enhanced for undocumented immigrants who are in court proceedings. For example, certain undocumented immigrants — including unaccompanied minors and those with serious mental disabilities — would have an attorney appointed to represent them in court. Additional immigration judges and court staff would also be added to ensure undocumented immigrants have a day in court.
Penalties would increase for undocumented immigrants involved in gangs and other criminal activities. For example, undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of an offense that involves participating in a street gang would be subject to deportation and ineligible for RPI status. Undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes — including domestic violence and child abuse — would be deported and not allowed to re-enter the U.S. Furthermore, undocumented immigrants convicted of three drunk-driving offenses would be punished with an aggravated felony.
Title IV: Reforms to Nonimmigrant Visa Programs
The annual cap of visas for high-skilled foreign workers (H-1B) would be raised from the current 65,000 to a cap that would fluctuate between 115,000 and 180,000 based on several factors, including employer demand and the unemployment rate.
During markup of the bill, two provisions were stripped out of the bill that would’ve protected U.S. workers. First, employers would’ve been required to make “good faith” recruitment efforts to hire U.S. workers before hiring an H-1B worker. Second, employers wouldn’t have been allowed to intentionally displace a U.S. worker within a short time after hiring an H-1B worker.
Low-skilled foreign workers would be able to apply for new visas, known as W visas, to come work in the U.S. — but only in registered non-agricultural jobs. The new visa, which is renewable every three years, would allow workers to leave their jobs to work for other employers. It would also allow them to eventually apply for lawful permanent residency. The annual W visa cap would fluctuate between 20,000 and 200,000, depending on various factors like the unemployment rate and the availability of jobs.
Qualified immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. for the purpose of creating new businesses would be able to apply for a new investor visa, known as X visa. The temporary visa would be granted for three years, and there is a cap of 10,000 for such visas per fiscal year. Some investors would also be eligible to apply for legal permanent residency.