A Senate group is expected to unveil an immigration reform bill this week. Many of the details are still forthcoming, but some have been leaked to media in recent days. Among them: A proposed path to citizenship for many unauthorized immigrants, contingent on border security goals; changes to the work visa system for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers; and plans to eliminate the sometimes decades-long waits faced by immigrants being sponsored by family members for visas.
How might some of these proposed changes work in practice? As the Senate proposal and an anticipated House bill start making their way through the legislative process, what should immigrant families expect? Telemundo legal expert and Los Angeles immigration attorney Alma Rosa Nieto provides her take.
M-A: The Senate reform package is still a moving target. But from what you've learned so far, what fundamental changes to the immigration system does it propose? Will we see a shift away from family- to work-based immigration?
Nieto: This proposal attempts to legalize the status of eligible individuals in the United States, while at the same time assuring they don't obtain permanent residency before those who have already applied to immigrate, but whose visas are still unavailable due to backlogs.
Immigrants who have been living in the U.S. in undocumented status would receive a provisional status, whose duration would be at least ten years. This time frame was chosen because the goal is to clear backlogs for those already waiting for immigrant visas through our current system. It's believed that in ten years, the backlogs will be cleared up, and everyone already "in the system" will have obtained permanent residency.
This proposal also includes a farmworker program and visas for high-tech workers. It also would remove current annual limits on visas available for the spouses and unwed minor children of permanent legal residents. But the proposal would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to immigrate their siblings.
M-A: There's a proposed path to citizenship for immigrants now here illegally, but with many hoops for people to jump through, perhaps even a cutoff date. Can you explain how this would work?
Nieto: The proposed immigration reform plan outlines requirements for obtaining permanent residency and repeatedly makes mention of "earned" legalization. What this means is that Congress intends for those applying to meet a series of requirements at different stages of the application process.
To list a few, for example, one stage would require paying a fine, another proof of English proficiency, proof of knowledge of civics or U.S. history, proof of continuous employment, payment of U.S. income taxes for the required years, a showing of non-receipt of public benefits or likelihood of non-receipt in the future, and proof of established residency in the U.S. for the required number of years. (The 1986 amnesty required proof of living in the U.S. from 1982 to 1988.) These requisite "hoops" stand to make the process lengthy and costly to the applicant.
M-A: Immigrant families will be those most affected if comprehensive reform passes. For those seeking legal status, or who have relatives in the immigrant visa pipeline, what should they expect to do in case a reform bill passes?
Nieto: Future applicants who hope to adjust their status should start preparing now in case immigration reform does pass. I recommend steps such as getting a certified copy of their birth certificate from their home country, going to their consulate and requesting a passport or other form of identification (such as matricula consular), going back to old employers and requesting letters verifying past employment, sorting documents by year proving the applicant has been in the U.S., getting copies of birth records for U.S. born children, enrolling in school to learn English, and getting copies of taxes paid in prior years.
As for the possible elimination of the sibling visa category, unfortunately at this time, there's no way to know if that specific part of the proposal will be incorporated in the final piece of legislation. It's imperative that people remember that this bill needs to pass through committees and the floor in both the Senate and the House before it finally gets to President Obama's desk.
M-A: Will there be there winners and losers in this reform plan? Who are they?
Nieto: Immigrants now living in the U.S. without permission who for many years have worked here, paid taxes, and have U.S.-born children will benefit from immigration reform by receiving a work permit and the ability to travel during the 10 years they have this nebulous "legal" status, and it would eventually "earn" them permanent residence in the U.S.
The United States will also win by having 11 million-plus individuals paying taxes, getting higher education, becoming licensed drivers, and paying hefty fines that will greatly contribute to the economy, and lastly creating an accountability system that tracks all individuals living in the U.S., thereby increasing our national security.
As far as losers, the path to permanent residency will take over 10 years, and that's a long time. This same process under the 1986 amnesty took much less time. And there will always be those who claim immigrants will take the jobs of U.S.-born citizens. But there have been studies that have shown these claims to unfounded, as many times, immigrants are willing to take those jobs that many U.S.-born citizens would not.