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3 key components of the expected Senate immigration bill, explained

Billions of dollars will go toward additional border security under an expected Senate immigration reform bill.
Billions of dollars will go toward additional border security under an expected Senate immigration reform bill.
Jose Luis Jiménez/FronterasProject

The Senate's immigration reform bill has yet to be officially unveiled, but a summary that has circulated from Washington is providing some details.

The summary addresses three major components:

--What would happen on the border;

--How people who are currently here illegally would be able to adjust their status;

--How the nation's immigration system would shift from one that's mostly family-based to one that provides more opportunities for foreign workers.

Border Security

There will be a considerable ramp-up. The bill proposes setting a 90 percent "effectiveness rate" goal for security in parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where illegal entry arrests reach more than 30,000 a year. How will effectiveness be measured? This will be up for ardent debate, but there is a formula:

“Effectiveness Rate” definition — The number of apprehensions and turn backs in a specific sector divided by the total number of illegal entries. 

The plan proposes that within 180 days of the bill being enacted, the Homeland Security secretary is to submit a "Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy" to Congress. Three billion dollars will be budgeted for additional border agents, technology and surveillance, such as drones. 

There will also be, yes, more border fence: A related fence strategy will also be part of the plan, with $1.5 billion for fencing, technology and related security. 

If the desired 90 percent effectiveness rate isn't reached within five years, a commission of border governors, security experts and others will be convened to figure out the next steps.

All of which makes legalization a complicated matter. An initial border security "trigger" means that no one can begin the process of pursuing legal status until Homeland Security has notified Congress that the border strategies are complete. And even after unauthorized immigrants can start the legalization process, most won't be able to move on to permanent legal status until other "triggers" are met, including the implementation of a mandatory employment verification system.


Those seeking to pursue legal status will need lots of patience — and a fair bit of cash, too. Even without the border security triggers, the path to U.S. citizenship for unauthorized immigrants is expected to take about 13 years, starting with provisional legal status.

How it would work: People who arrived prior to the end of 2011 would be able to apply for "Registered Provisional Temporary" status. Those who arrived later than that date aren't eligible. Also not eligible are people convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors, or other offenses, such as voting illegally.

Those who make the cut would be expected to pay a $500 fine, back taxes and application fees to start the process. The fine would not apply to young people who arrived in the U.S. as minors and are eligible for the proposed federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. They would also have a much shorter wait for permanent legal status.

People with provisional status would be able to work legally and travel outside the country, but they could not receive federal public benefits. Provisional status would also be renewable after six years.

After 10 years, provided they stay out of legal trouble and the additional border security triggers are met, immigrants with provisional status would be able to apply for permanent legal status. They would have to meet several "merit-based" requirements, though, including having lived continuously in the U.S., paid taxes, worked regularly, and learned English and civics.

And one more major hoop: The backlog of immigrants currently awaiting family- and employer-based visas would first need to have received their green cards before the new crop of eligible immigrants can move ahead.

Once that is all done, the provisional immigrants would pay another $1,000 penalty. From that point, they'd be able to apply for citizenship in about three years.

Those who qualify for the DREAM Act, along with farm workers under the bill's agricultural worker provision, would be able to obtain their green cards in five years.

Family and Work

The bill aims to shift the balance of the U.S. immigration system from its current emphasis on family ties to one that rewards work skills. In order to free up more visas for workers, some family-based visas would be eliminated.

This includes narrowing the definition of "family" for immigration purposes. U.S. citizens would no longer be able to sponsor their adult siblings, nor could they continue to sponsor their adult married children over 30. Also eliminated would be the Diversity Visa, a program that provides visas to applicants from countries under-represented among immigrants in the U.S.

Numerical limits would be lifted, meanwhile, on visas for immediate family of people who come on employment-based visas, as well as for "aliens of extraordinary ability" — doctoral degree-holders in STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

And there would eventually be a new merit-based immigrant visa for "talented individuals" already in the U.S. on worker programs and with family ties here. It would award points based on education, employment, how long someone has been in the country and other factors.

On the temporary visa front, the bill would nearly double the cap for visas for high-skilled workers; it would also create a visa for lower-skilled, non-agricultural workers. Farm workers would have their own route, with a guest worker plan that would replace the existing program with two new visas. 

As for current unauthorized farm workers, those who qualify would have their own path to legal status through the long-standing AgJOBS proposal. As with the general legalization program, applicants would have to pay taxes and fines, and have a clean law enforcement record.

There would be more workers in the system, but employers would have their own hoop to jump through. The bill suggests a five-year phase-in for employers to begin using a new, mandatory E-Verify system. The current online employment verification tool is optional.

Which leads us back full circle, with mandatory E-Verify as one of the triggers that would have to occur before immigrants in provisional status can move forward on that long, slow path to citizenship.

A Senate press conference and hearings on the bill are expected later this week.