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Highlights (and Lowlights) of the Senate Immigration Bill

The release of the Senate immigration bill has generated more excitement that there will be a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. While this is a positive step, there are some important cautions raised by the bill as well. Here are some key points to consider with this week's announcement:

This isn't a law yet.

Even though this bill is important, it is just an early step in a long lawmaking process. It is still possible there won't be a new law, or that it will be very different from what was initially proposed. Therefore, while it's worth looking at the key points of the bill, it's important to keep in mind that a lot can change in the future.

Residency after many years.

The bill allows undocumented immigrants to get a temporary status called "Registered Provisional Immigrant" (RPI) status, allowing them to stay and work in the U.S. legally. Most would not, however, be eligible for permanent residency (a necessary step to citizenship) for many years.

Eligible individuals with this temporary status could apply for permanent residence, but only if several enforcement goals are met. These goals include an entry/exit system, a countrywide mandatory employment verification system, completion of a border fence, and substantial progress towards a border control plan with a 90 % effectiveness rate in apprehending individuals attempting to enter without inspection.

If these goals are not met, however, it appears that those in temporary status will need to keep waiting. If this is the case, individuals would be able to maintain RPI status until the goals are met, as the status is renewable after six years.

If these goals are met, those in temporary status would be able to adjust to lawful permanent resident status, provided that they maintained continuous physical presence, paid all taxes owed to the government and a $1,000 fine, worked in the United States regularly, and can demonstrate knowledge of Civics and English. Once lawful permanent residents, they will be eligible to apply for citizenship in three years.

Exception for "DREAMers" and Agricultural Workers.

Individuals who qualify for the Dream Act or participate in the Agricultural Card Program could adjust their status to lawful permanent resident after a period of five years in RPI status, and could apply for citizenship immediately thereafter. Additionally, these individuals would be able to receive their green cards in five years regardless of whether the Border Security goals have been met.

Who Qualifies for Temporary Residence (RPI status)?

Applicants for temporary residence will need to demonstrate that they were in the U.S. on December 31, 2011, and have been continuously physically present since that date. They will also need to demonstrate they do not have any disqualifying criminal convictions, which appear to include any conviction for a felony, aggravated felony, three or more misdemeanors, or a foreign offense. It also disqualifies individuals who have unlawfully voted or are deemed a criminal or national security threat.

Additionally, applicants would need to pay a penalty fee and assessed taxes in addition to the regular application fees. These fees would apply at the time of renewal of RPI status as well.

Changes to the Immigrant Visa System.

The bill calls for the elimination of the current immigrant visa backlog during the temporary residency period so that temporary residents will have not jumped ahead those who have already been waiting for a green card. The backlog would be eliminated by changing the alloted number of visas available for certain family and employment-based visas, and establishing a new, "merit-based" visa system which would assign points to individuals based on factors such as their education, special skills, and family ties to the United States, among others. There would be 120,000 visas available per year, and that number could increase by 5% per year if needed, as long as unemployment is under 8.5%. There would be a maximum cap of 250,000 visas per year.

The plan also calls for the elimination of immigrant visas for the siblings of U.S. citizens after 18 months from the date of the enactment of the law. This could have many implications for those with U.S. citizen siblings who do not yet have visa petitions pending for them. For further discussion on this topic, please see our previous post, "With such a long wait, why file a family-based visa petition now?"

Other Changes.

The bill also outlines many other changes, including changes to the H-1B visa program, and creation of Guest Worker and Farm Worker programs.

The annual allocation of H-1B visas would increase from 65,000 to 110,000 per year, with the potential to increase to 180,000 per year if needed.

A Guest Worker or "W" visa program would grant 20,000 visas per year to eligible low-skilled workers, with the potential to increase to 75,000 per year.

Undocumented agricultural workers who have made a "substantial prior commitment to agricultural work in the United States" would be eligible for a temporary status through an "Agricultural Card," which would eventually replace the H-2A visa program.

While the Senate bill is a step in the right direction, it still includes a long and winding path to residency, and it remains to be seen whether it will actually get off the ground.

To stay updated on immigration reform, pay attention to the news, and follow us on twitter @beanlloydllp.

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