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Published April 17, 2013, 11:23 AM

Bipartisan legislation fixes chronic immigration problems

A sweeping immigration bill that a bipartisan group of eight senators completed April 16 seeks not only to fix chronic problems in the system and bring an estimated 11 million immigrants to the right side of the law.

By: Julia Preston , New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — A sweeping immigration bill that a bipartisan group of eight senators completed April 16 seeks not only to fix chronic problems in the system and bring an estimated 11 million immigrants to the right side of the law. It would also reorient future immigration with the goal of bringing foreigners to the country based increasingly on the job skills and personal assets they can offer.

The bill, by four Democrats and four Republicans, is the most ambitious effort in at least 26 years to repair, update and reshape the U.S. immigration system.

Agreement was reached April 12 between farm labor unions and growers on one of the last major components of the bill — a deal that would set the terms of wages, visas and working conditions for migrant agriculture workers.

The accord, struck after weeks of touch-and-go talks between representatives of industry leaders and workers and brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would establish a new "blue card" for migrant workers already in this country without legal permission, and allow up to 336,000 visas for farm workers.

The three-part package is important for California’s agriculture industry.

The part of the bill expected to draw the most controversy is a 13-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have been living here illegally. In an effort to make that proposal acceptable to Republicans who fear it could unleash a new wave of illegal immigration, the senators placed a series of conditions, or triggers, along the pathway, that would require the Department of Homeland Security to spend as much as $5.5 billion over 10 years to increase enforcement and extend fencing along the Southwest border.

The border security programs would have to be fully operational before any immigrants who had been here illegally would be able to apply for permanent resident cards, the first step toward becoming U.S. citizens.

But the overall proposal is only one part of the complex bargain. Created by the senators in tough closed-door negotiations, the legislation codifies other novel compromises designed to break logjams that have clogged the immigration system. The senators said they would formally introduce the bill late April 16.

President Barack Obama praised the legislation as “largely consistent” with the principles he had laid out for an immigration overhaul. After a meeting with two senators from the group, Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the president said in a statement that the provisions of their bill are “all common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support.”

McCain says his onetime rival for the presidency was “very supportive” but understands that “everybody didn’t get everything they wanted.”

Schumer praised Obama for giving the senators room to craft the bipartisan legislation. “I thanked him for that. John thanked him for that.”

Schumer says the process would begin formally with hearings April 19 in the Judiciary Committee, with the goal of voting on the bill in the Senate in late May or early June.

New card

Farm workers already in the country without legal status would be eligible to apply for a new type of permanent residency called a blue card, according to those familiar with the agreement.

The process, which would require at least two years of farm work and a commitment to work in agriculture for at least another five years, would start the recipient down the path to citizenship. It would likely be faster than applying for a green card.

The minimum wage rate would be set nationally for six categories defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with set minimum pay scales.

Growers would also have to pay visa holders for transportation in and out of the country, as well as a housing allowance, if adequate housing is not provided.

For future workers, new agricultural visas would be issued for three years, with 112,000 available each year. Five years after the start of the visa program, the secretary of Agriculture would set the annual number of visas based on labor market data.

Senators were still debating whether agricultural workers would be able to bring spouses and children on the visa.

But not all senators who were party to the agricultural deal have committed to the comprehensive legislation, which will include stronger border security, visas for other industries and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who entered this country without proper paperwork or overstayed their visas.

For the first time, the legislation would create a merit-based program to award the visa for legal permanent residents, known as a green card, based on a point system. When the merit system takes effect, five years after the bill is passed, at least 120,000 foreign-born people each year would be able to gain green cards by accumulating points based on their skills and education, as well as their family ties and the time they have lived in the United States.

Over a decade, the balance in the immigration system would gradually shift away from the 75 percent of visas that now go to family members of immigrants already here. As a result of the merit program, closer to 50 percent of visas annually would go to immigrants based on their family ties, while about half would be based on job skills.

Pathway to citizenship

Perhaps the most original compromise is the path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. Several Republicans, especially Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, insist that there could be no special, separate path for them. But Democrats, led by Schumer, fought for a direct, manageable pathway that would ensure that most immigrants here illegally get a chance to earn their way to becoming citizens.

In a first phase, those immigrants would spend a minimum of 10 years in Registered Provisional Immigrant Status, which would allow them to work and travel. After 10 years, they would be eligible to apply for green cards through the merit system.

That system would have two tracks: one based on the number of points immigrants could accumulate, with a fixed annual numerical cap, and another for foreigners who had been legally employed in the United States for 10 years or more. The second track would not have a cap. Formerly, immigrants who were in the country illegally would be eligible to apply, after 10 years in provisional status, for those green cards.

However, many other immigrants would also be eligible for the merit system. They include those who had applied legally for green cards and had been stuck in backlogs for 10 years or more. The solution satisfied both Republicans’ and Democrats’ demands.