By Alexander Bolton - 04/16/13 01:15 PM EDT
The Senate’s Gang of Eight on Tuesday released the details of a broad agreement to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
The legislation would give provisional legal status to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and put them on a pathway to citizenship, but only after several criteria for securing the U.S.-Mexico border are met.
It would provide funding for 3,500 additional customs agents nationwide and authorize the deployment of the National Guard to the border to construct fencing and augment surveillance systems.
Illegal immigrants would not receive provisional legal status until the Secretary of Homeland Security submits to Congress a “notice of commencement” testifying to the completion of the bill’s border-security goals.
And before immigrants with provisional status could achieve permanent lawful status, the secretary, in consultation with the comptroller general of the U.S., would have to certify a number of border-security provisions were met.
These include verification that a southern border security strategy is substantially deployed and operational, a border fencing strategy is substantially completed, a mandatory employment verification system has been implemented across the country, and that an electronic exit system has been set up at airports and seaports to track departing visa holders.
Border security could prove to be the pivotal issue that makes or breaks the bill, at least among the GOP’s conservative base.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading Senate critic of comprehensive immigration reform, said Monday evening that he thought the border security requirements were weaker than in legislation debated in 2007.
“I’m not going to quote what they said in there, but how the trigger works and the way it would be effected in some ways appears weaker than the one in 2007,” he said after a briefing from the Republican members of the Gang of Eight on Monday.
A Senate aide critical of the legislation said the bill would not require completion of the border fence but instead give Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano discretion to approve a fencing plan she determined necessary.
The bill would eliminate the backlog for family and employment-based immigration and create a merit-based visa that would award points to individuals based on their education, employment and length of residence in the U.S. five years after the enactment of the law.
The legislation would also require all employers to use an electronic verification system to ensure the legal status of job applicants. The system would be phased in over five years, and non-citizens would be required to carry biometric work authorization cards.
It would raise the cap on H-1B visas for highly-skilled workers from 65,000 to 110,000 and allow for it to rise as high as 180,000. The cap would be adjusted on the basis of a new formula, the High Skilled Jobs Demand Index, based on how many petitions are filed for the visas and the unemployment rate in the management, professional and related occupations category of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The compromise would create a new W-visa program for low-skilled workers. Wages for these workers would be the same as those paid to other workers employed or the prevailing wage level for the occupation in the geographical area, depending on which is higher.
W-visas would be strictly capped for the first four years after the enactment of the law, limited to 20,000 in the first year, 35,000 in the second year, 55,000 in the third year and 75,000 in the fourth year. After the fourth year, the cap would be calculated according to a statistical formula based on the rate of change of new job openings, the number of unemployed U.S. workers and other factors.
The gang that crafted the immigration agreement includes Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), and Michael Bennet (Colo.).