What's the Deal with the Immigration Reform Bill? A Guide

A comprehensive immigration reform bill just passed through the Senate, and you need to know what's in it (so you can most effectively fight with your old neighbor on Facebook). Here's your easy-to-understand guide to the Senate's bill and the current status of immigration reform.

What's going on with immigration reform?

I'm glad you asked! After months of debate, wrangling, and amendments, senators just passed S.744, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act," their comprehensive immigration reform law, by a 68-32 margin.

So now... immigration is reformed?

No, not quite. After the Senate, the House of Representatives has to pass the bill—or a modified version of it that can be reconciled with the Senate's—after which the president can sign off on it.

So what does the Senate bill consist of, then?

When I say "comprehensive," I mean it: The bill has four sections, dealing with border security, enforcement, immigrant visas, and nonimmigrant visas.

Let's start with border security, then.

Okay. If the Senate bill passes through the legislative process unchanged (unlikely with respect to border security in particular), Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will be required to submit a two border security plans, called the "Southern Border Fencing Strategy" and the "Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy," through which at least $3 billion will be spent on infrastructure and personnel—including building new fences, bases, and stations; increasing surveillance and deploying more unmanned drones; and hiring thousands of new Customs and Border Protection officers.

Both plans have a common goal: A 90 percent success rate at stopping border crossings and comprehensive round-the-clock surveillance. If neither met, a bipartisan Southern Border Security Commission will be created to devise new recommendations. (More drones! More guards! Give the guards lasers! And big pit, and at the bottom of the pit, there are attack dogs!)

And you said this is different from the enforcement component?

Enforcement is a whole other section of the bill, dealing with how the U.S. handles immigrants (both documented and un-) once they're within the country. The big change has to do with verification of legal immigration statuses: American businesses—phased in over a five-year period—will be required to use an expanded version of the E-Verify system to confirm that new hires are legally allowed to work in the U.S.

The bill also expands protections for victims of human trafficking, offering a visa to people who have been abused or enslaved; eliminates the one-year-after-arrival deadline for asylum applications; and provides some protections for immigrants engaged in removal proceedings (such as limiting solitary confinement and guaranteeing representation for some vulnerable classes of immigrants).

What about citizenship for the immigrants who are already here? Is that part of the immigrant visas section?

Yes! Title II, Immigrant Visas, is the big-deal section in terms of the actual most important and pressing issue, which isn't "border security" but rather providing current undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship.

Essentially, the bill would allow undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. since before 2012—and who are also in good standing with law—to apply for a newly created status, "Registered Provisional Immigrant," which is good for six years, at which point it can be renewed for another six. After ten years as an RPI, and provided they meet certain requirements, immigrants can apply for Lawful Permanent Residence, or a green card; after three years with a green card, they may apply for citizenship.

This means a 13-year path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. There will be fast-track exceptions for two groups: those who entered the U.S. before they turned 16, who, in line with the long-debated DREAM Act, only need five years of RPI status, plus two years of college or four years of military service, to apply for a green card, at which point they can immediately apply for citizenship; and agricultural workers, who, provided they stay in agricultural work, can apply for a special "blue card" that would allow for them to apply for green cards after only five years, and citizenship after five years with a green card.

In addition to the new path-to-citizenship provisions, the bill would overhaul the legal immigration process, providing for a "point system" that would award "points" to applicants based on their skills, education, employment history, age, and family ties, among other factors (talk about gamification!). Finally, employment-based immigration would be expanded, removing the cap on workers from India and China, and providing an easier path for immigrants with advanced STEM degrees from U.S. universities.

Okay, and, finally, what's the deal with "nonimmigrant visas"?

These are, generally speaking, visas for people who want to come to the U.S. to work or study, but not permanently. For highly skilled workers, especially those in STEM fields, the bill will raise the visa cap from 65,000 to a figure over 100,000 that will be set yearly by taking into account market demand and unemployment numbers.

Even more radically, S.744 would create a several new categories of nonimmigrant visa. Most important of these is the W, for less-skilled, non-seasonal, nonagricultural workers—in general, people working in custodial, hospitality, construction and service fields. Workers with a W—good for three years and renewable for an additional three—could work for any employer registered with the program, and even leave one employer for another without jeopardizing their visa status. The cap for the W will, like other nonimmigrant visas, fluctuate depending on market conditions, and employers who wish to hire W employees will have to recruit U.S. workers and demonstrate that their positions cannot be filled by U.S. workers.

Finally, there's a new "investor visa" for entrepreneurs and "job creators." All of the nonimmigrant visas offer opportunities to move toward eventual lawful permanent residence status.

That's everything, right? Anything missing?

I mean, broadly speaking, yeah, that's everything. If you want something that goes more in depth but don't feel like reading the law itself, the Immigration Policy Center has a long plain-English summary here.

Seems like a pretty good bill.

Yeah! I mean, the border security stuff is expensive and useless, but it's the price you pay to get Republicans on board.

So what's next, now that it's passed the Senate?

The House of Representatives. And, possibly, death.

The bill might die?

Yes. The bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that cobbled the bill together in the Senate spent a lot of time trying to get a proposal that would garner 70 votes—10 more than it'd need to avoid a filibuster (and 19 more than it should need under basic democratic principles)—in the hopes that it would signal to the House that the bill had broad bipartisan support and the House shouldn't mess with it too much.

Unfortunately the House didn't seem to read the signal, and Republican leaders have been loudly proclaiming their lack of interest in picking up the immigration ball. (Just as they did with the last immigration bill in 2006, which died in the House.) The House is more right-wing, generally speaking, and where Republican Senators—focused on the long game of a changing electorate—want to prove to Latino voters that Republicans aren't racist, Republican Congressmen—focused on the short game of getting elected by right-wing districts—are trying to prove to terrified white voters that Republicans are.

Is there any way it will pass through the House?

It probably has enough votes to pass, between moderate Republicans and Democrats. But Speaker John Boehner is unlikely to bring it to a vote when the majority of his caucus is against it. So... call your congressperson, I guess. Every day.