The Quick and Dirty of the American Immigration Bill (S.744)

The momentum of the post 2012 election season has brought us to this point: an actual bipartisan bill coming out of the American Congressional system. If that wasn’t shocking enough in the context of the past decade of filibusters and stubborn partisanship resulting in letting things like the sequester happen, this bipartisan bill is an immigration bill. We haven’t had major immigration reform since 1996, and efforts in 2007 fizzled in large part because Congress was not ready to provide a pathway to citizenship, something this 2013 bill provides.

When S.744, or the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” was introduced on April 16th, it was 844 pages long. After the manager’s amendment (an amendment making technical fixes), the bill is 867 pages long. Few but the most committed immigration policy wonks are going to slog through the whole bill – it does not make for light early summer reading.

If it’s been awhile since you took an American government class, or if you’re unfamiliar with the American system, take a few minutes to view this crash course on bills in the American legislation system:

We’re still a long way from this bill becoming law. At any given point, this bill could stall. Currently, the Senate Judiciary Committee is marking up 300 amendments to S.744 (think back to the part of that video where he’s sitting outside the door and there’s a lot of bickering going on behind the door). Depending on what amendments pass, and how it does in the House, this bill will change a lot between now and when if becomes a law – if it becomes a law at all.

Currently, S.744:
Hinges on Border Security. There is a “trigger” in Title I of the bill that means that none of the rest of the bill will fall into place until the Department of Homeland Security must develop a Comprehensive Border Security Strategy and Southern Border Fencing Strategy that must reach 90% effectiveness in apprehensions and returns in high risk border stations (A Grassley Amendment removed the high risk qualifier). The bill allows for funding this (to the tune of 4.5 billion including the funds for additional fencing along the Mexican border), and for a commission to convene if the goals are not met within five years.

Creates a new immigrant status for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. This status is called “Registered Provisional Immigrant” or RPI. Only illegal immigrants who were in the country before December 31, 2011, pass a background check, have not been convicted of any serious crimes are eligible for RPI status. They will have to pay taxes, some fees, and a $500 fine. Timeline wise, immigrants under RPI status could become a citizen in 13 years (once they obtain RPI status, which hinges on the border security in Title I).

Provides a fast track for DREAMers. Individuals who entered the United States illegally under the age of 16 (“DREAMers”) and have completed high school (or a GED) can obtain citizenship in just five years.

Creates a special status for agriculture workers. Undocumented farm workers who can demonstrate at least 100 work days in the two years prior to S.744 becoming a law, will be eligible for an Agricultural Card. To be eligible for permanent residency, they will have to show that all their taxes have been paid, they were not convicted of a serious crime, and they will have to pay a fine.

These three tracks for RPIs, DREAMers, and agricultural workers create the new “pathways to citizenship” for illegal immigrants.  There’s a good infographic on these separate paths available on Quartz.

Changes the way the United States grants immigrant and non-immigrant visas. Switching us to a point-based system instead of our current diversity and family oriented system. The focus is much higher on high skilled immigrants, especially within STEM fields. Significantly, the bill also removes the sibling relationship from those eligible to claim family relationship on the point system.

Provides more discretion for judges and the Department of Homeland Security to decide not to deport someone based on humanitarian grounds.

Makes E-Verify mandatory within five years.  E-verify is an electronic program that verifies whether or not someone is eligible for employment in the United States, and S.744 would make it mandatory for employers to use the e-verify system.

Addresses the backlog by creating a “Track Two” merit-based system, which also allows for immigrants who have been legally present in the United States (and legally allowed to work) for at least ten years to become permanent residents.

Removes the one-year limit on asylum applications and streamlines asylum/refugee applications. Currently, asylum seekers must claim asylum within a year of arrival to the United States. S.744 removes this, and generally eliminates a lot of the barriers to granting asylum/refugee status based on family reunification and credible fear interviews.

Reforms Non-Immigrant Visa Programs, creating new visa programs for high skilled workers, agricultural workers, and a “W” visa program for new workers that don’t fit into high skilled or agricultural. Creates an INVEST visa system for foreign entrepreneurs that want to start businesses in the United States. Theoretically creates an easier transition to permanent residence for non-immigrant visa holders.

Creates two new government offices. The Office of New Americans to handle integration programs and the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, which will make recommendations on the visa caps in the non-immigrant visa programs described above.

Rep. Mark Takano released this pictorial summary of S.744.

What the bill does not include is provisions for binational LGBT couples. This, along with the fact that there’s a pathway to citizenship at all are likely to be the most contentious parts of the bill as it goes forward. ABC has a good run down on the important amendments that are part of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary mark up, which include amendments relating to same-sex couples, the pathway to citizenship, tougher border triggers, putting siblings back into the family consideration of the visa process, and amendments that are a result of the Boston Bombing.

Personally, I’m impressed with this bill. As a political moderate (in the American context) and pro-immigrant migrationist, I’m impressed that Congress managed to produce an actual bipartisan document. There’s give and take throughout S.744. The December 31, 2011 cut off, the lack of LGBT provision, and the border security trigger aren’t ideal from a liberal perspective, but the trade off for an actual path to citizenship for so many individuals who have made the United States their home is significant. If this bill passes largely intact, and individuals on both sides of the Democrat/Republican divide do not dig in over the above issues to prevent S.744 becoming law, my faith in the American legislation system actually working will be somewhat restored. Legislation is supposed to be compromise, and this is something Congress has failed at in recent years. The American immigration bill provides both much needed comprehensive immigration reform and a sign of possibly returning to an age of Congress actually doing something on Capitol Hill.

Update 5/22/2013:  The bill has passed out of committee and is expected to hit the Senate floor in early June.

The Immigration Policy Center has several blog posts that are a good overview of the  mark up process, the National Immigration Forum has a rundown of the passed amendments, and America’s Voice has a list of must-read news articles relating to immigration reform.

See also “Reform Rundown:  The American Congress and Immigration” for our update.

Further Reading:

Short Summary of the Bill (5 pages)

Longer Short Summary of the Bill (17 pages)

Bill Summary & Status (including the 844 page bill as introduced)

Amendments Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary

First Steps to a Better Immigration Bill (NYT Editorial)

Join the discussion at the Immigration Policy Center’s policy wiki

The writing and views in this post are exclusively that of the author.  This post is not affiliated with or endorsed by any organization.


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