The U.S. Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill 68 to 32 on Thursday afternoon. Here are the major ways it would affect California if it becomes law.
1. It would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. The path to citizenship is a big deal for California because almost a quarter of the estimated 11 million people in the United States illegally live here. If the bill becomes law, they could be eligible to become “registered provisional immigrants,” assuming they don’t have a serious criminal record, can pass background checks and pay federal taxes — plus a $1000 fine. Then — if these folks stay out of trouble, learn English and civics, remain employed and earn a minimum income — after 10 years they can apply for lawful permanent residence, or a “green card.” After three years with a green card, they will have the option to apply for citizenship.
There’s a parallel, and shorter, path for “DREAMers,” the young people who were brought to this country before they turned 16. If they earn a high school diploma and complete two years of college — or four years in the military — they can apply for a green card after five years and then immediately apply for citizenship. Undocumented farm workers can also get on a shorter path to legal residence if they spend a few more years working in agriculture.
Some analysts believe that several million undocumented immigrants could fall off the path, though, and wind up staying in the shadows. In addition, the bill won’t let anyone here illegally get a green card until a set of enforcement provisions is in place: doubling the size of the Border Patrol, adding more fencing and technology along the border, and requiring an electronic system to verify the legal work eligibility of everyone who takes a new job.
2. It would put border enforcement on steroids. California is one of four states bordering Mexico and one of the places where the serious border build-up got started almost 20 years ago is around San Diego. Spending on border protection has more than doubled over the past decade. And illegal border crossings are at near-historic lows, due to both the difficulty of crossing and our still-struggling economy. This bill would put another $46 billion into fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border over the next 10 years, and nearly double the Border Patrol force to almost 40,000 agents. It would add more drones, sensors, radar, helicopters and other technology. And it would complete 700 miles of impassable “pedestrian” fencing, replacing about 350 miles of waist-high vehicle barriers. Those measures get mixed reviews in border communities, where many dislike uncontrolled immigration but have close ties with Mexico.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who co-wrote the “border surge” amendment, said it was “almost overkill.” But it earned the bill some extra Republican votes. The border security strategy must be implemented before any immigrant with provisional legal status can get a green card.
It’s worth noting that not all undocumented immigrants enter the country illegally; roughly a third come into the country on legal visas and overstay.
3. It would make it easier for high-tech industries to hire people from abroad. California’s tech sector stands to get a big influx of foreign talent. Silicon Valley leaders lobbied hard for a range of measures in the Senate bill and they got what they were after. The bill could dramatically expand the number of H-1B temporary visas for skilled workers, from a current maximum of 80,000 to as many as 205,000. And it would speed the line to a green card for workers from countries such as India and China, who currently face a long wait. That’s because the bill would remove annual country caps for employment-based visas and substitute a first-come, first-served system.
Foreign students earning graduate degrees in science, math and technology at U.S. universities could get a green card under the Senate plan if they have a U.S. job offer. The bill also creates a brand new “start-up visa” that would offer green cards to foreign entrepreneurs who have raised capital from qualified U.S. investors.
4. It would provide a fast-track legalization for agricultural workers. Agriculture, especially labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops, are another big California industry. Out of the more than 1 million undocumented farm workers in the U.S., as many as 400,000 are in California and most could qualify. They would have to continue to work in agriculture for the next five years or so while in provisional legal status, and then they could apply for a green card. The deal was crafted by labor leaders and growers anxious for a more reliable, stable workforce.
The bill would also create a new guest worker program for farm workers who could come in on a renewable three-year visa. Unlike the Bracero Program of the 1940s-‘60s, it allows the workers to change jobs if they are unhappy with an employer. This guest worker program, along with a temporary visa for low-skilled non-agricultural workers, is meant to provide a legal way for future foreign workers to come for jobs, rather than crossing the border illegally.
5. It would require every American worker to be screened through an electronic system when starting a new job. Within five years, all California employers – along with every other employer in the country – would have to use the federal system to check whether new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States. The system, known as E-Verify, grows out of the current requirement that new employees must show their bosses documents to prove they are either U.S. citizens or legal immigrants with work authorization. The current paper-based system has been in place since 1986 but it’s susceptible to fraud. The electronic system cross-checks workers through Social Security and immigration databases. Under the Senate plan, E-verify would be expanded from the 400,000 employers who use it now to all of the nation’s 7.3 million employers. Critics worry that errors in the databases will lead to workers being wrongly denied jobs. But Homeland Security officials say the error rate is low and that they can expand the system effectively. Mandatory E-verify must be up and running before undocumented immigrants in provisional status can gain green cards, under the bill.
One Thing the Senate Bill Will NOT Do
Senators decided not to add language to the immigration bill that would offer immigration benefits to same-sex couples. The Democrats who favored the idea were persuaded that it would doom the bill with more conservative Senators. However Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) means that federal benefits – including immigration benefits – that the government offers heterosexual married couples must also go to gay and lesbian married couples. So it may soon be possible for U.S. citizens to petition for green cards for their same-sex spouses from other countries.
Oh, and one more thing…It’s not law yet. It’s just a big, fat, 1922-page bill that will have to get through the House of Representatives before it makes it to the desk of President Obama.