The Twittersphere has been abuzz today with news of all flavors including updates on the tragedy in Boston. Those events have caused the U.S. Senate’s “Gang of Eight” to postpone their scheduled press conference on their compromise immigration legislation, but a rough outline of the proposal has been circulating on the Internet. Below we highlight some of the elements that are most important for our clients.
The document is very much a rough draft and further clarification will be needed to understand what is meant by some proposals. Moreover, it is the case that whatever is being proposed in this document is only an opening bid. The U.S. Senate could amend this legislation before passing it, and the House of Representatives will also weigh in with its own proposal. Final legislation would have to represent a merger of those two ideas.
Here are some key highlights as we understand them:
- Attainment of Lawful Status
The outline describes a new status for undocumented immigrants known as Registered Provision Immigrant (RPI). To qualify for RPI status one must have been physically present in the U.S. prior to December 31, 2011 and continuously since then. One cannot be inadmissible for criminal, national security, public health, or “morality” grounds and cannot have criminal history that includes a felony, federally defined “aggravated felony,” 3 or more misdemeanors, any foreign conviction, or who has unlawfully voted.
To attain RPI status one would have to pay a $500 fine and “assessed taxes” in addition to any processing fees. The status would be renewable in six-year increments with a $500 fine each time. Individuals would have one year from enactment to file for RPI status (possibly extended to two years).
RPI status would also be available to individuals who were deported for non-criminal reasons prior to December 31, 2011 if they have family in the United States. It is unclear what this means for individuals deported after December 31, 2011 – they seem not to qualify for either version of RPI.
- Merit-Based System/Visa
All RPI individuals will have to adjust status to Lawful Permanent Residence through a “Merit-Based System” that takes into account an applicant’s education, employment, and ties to the country among other factors. Between 120,000 and 250,000 merit-based visas would be allocated per year. The terms “Merit-Based System” and “Merit-Based Visa” are both used and it is unclear if these are different concepts or the same thing called by different names.
This pathway to citizenship would not open until border security measures have been deemed successful, existing family- and employment-based backlogs are cleared, and applicant must have been in RPI status for ten years, have paid taxes and worked regularly, demonstrate knowledge of U.S. civics and history, and pay a $1,000 fine.
It is not explicit in the outline but potentially individuals could obtain RPI status for a time and then utilize another aspect of the immigration system (e.g. the traditional family-based system) to obtain Permanent Resident status.
Conflicting language is used regarding the relationship between the Merit-Based System and the options for DREAM Act and AgJOBS immigrants. Do they get their own path or will they enter the Merit-Based System?
- DREAM Act and AgJOBS
The outline refers to the DREAM Act but does not explain which version of that proposed legislation would be used. DREAMers would become eligible for Lawful Permanent Residence after five years in RPI status and could immediately naturalize as U.S. citizens.
The proposal also absorbs the AgJOBS legislation permitting undocumented farm workers to obtain an Agricultural Card. The specifics of this Card are not available in great detail. To qualify one would have to pay a $400 fine, pay assessed taxes, and have a clean criminal history. After five years in AgJOBS status individuals could adjust status to Lawful Permanent Residence.
- Family-Based Immigration
The outline states that it will clear out the backlog of family-based immigration but it is not clear if this will be done by increasing visa levels or by simply closing the line and letting time run its course. No new F-4 (siblings of U.S. citizens) applications will be accepted 18 months after the law is enacted. The current F-2A category will become part of the immediate relative category, and the IR category appears to be expanded to include derivatives of IRs. The F-1, F-2B, and F-3 categories will be reshuffled in ways that are not entirely clear but which appear to make use of the V Visa (permitting certain individuals to live and work in the U.S. while they await visa availability) and which cut off future immigration of married sons and daughters who are over the age of 30.
Turning F-2A individuals into IRs and retiring the F-4 category will help clear the backlog and these newly available visas will be shared among employment- and family-based categories. It is not obvious how the math would work out and if these measures alone (as opposed to raising the visa caps) could clear the backlogs in 10 years or less.
- The Border Trigger
Six months after enactment of the legislation, two related border security policies must be created and begun. No undocumented individual may receive RPI status until these policies are in effect. Successful implementation of these policies will also be a requirement before RPI individuals (other than DREAM or Agricultural workers) can obtain Lawful Permanent Residence. The outline also authorizes billions of dollars in expenditures to increase border surveillance, speed up removals at the border, create a multi-layer border fence, and for other border security measures.
The use of E-Verify would become universal over a five-year period. All non-citizens would be required to retain a biometric-based employment authorization document in order to seek employment. U.S. citizens could use U.S. passports or state driver’s licenses for proof of employment authorization (as long as those state DMVs share photo-capture information with DHS).
- High-Skill Labor
The outline scraps the existing Diversity Visa system that permits immigration from historically underrepresented countries and in its place increases opportunities for high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Caps on H-1B visas will be tweaked to make them more fluid to match labor conditions and to cut down on abuse. H-1B visas could nearly triple over time. Those who come on student visas for bachelor’s degree or higher programs will receive dual-intent visas (making it easier for them to choose to live permanently in the U.S.).
- Low-Skill Labor
A guest worker program (the W Visa) will be created for individuals who live in a foreign country to come to the United States to work for three years at a time. Such individuals could bring their spouses and children with them and travel would be permitted. Principal W Visa workers may not be unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days but they may seek other job opportunities as well as promotions to higher-skill positions after 1 year with an employer. Employers who seek to have W Visa workers must comply with a registration process that must be renewed every three years. The registration process is meant to prevent unscrupulous or abusive employers from using W Visa workers. Policies would attempt to prevent W Visa workers from lowering the wages of native workers and to prevent W Visas from being over-represented in the construction industry.
More than anything, this outline feels like a catharsis. Observers have been pent up for months watching and waiting to see what the pathway to citizenship and overhaul of immigration policy may look like, and now we have a start to that conversation.
Many questions remain, among them:
How will business and labor interests receive the news of the W Visa, the tweaks to the high-skilled labor force, and the overhaul of temporary agricultural workers?
How will immigration advocates receive the requirement that most undocumented individuals wait 10+ years, master English and U.S. civics, and prevail in a competitive points-based system in order to attain lawful immigration status?
How will the public view the new approaches to employment- and family-based immigration?
Will the availability of waivers be expanded to cover the many circumstances not provided for in this draft legislation?
How can skilled immigration practitioners navigate between existing and new systems to help clients attain lawful immigration status, reunite families, and move forward on a pathway to citizenship?
As details emerge and answers to those questions reveal themselves we will keep our readers appraised.