WASHINGTON – One step down, one to go.
But that's one huge step remaining.
After the Senate passed a landmark immigration bill Thursday, opening the doors to U.S. citizenship to millions while pouring billions of dollars into securing the border with Mexico, the bill heads to an uncertain future for a vote in the Republican-led House.
—The bill sets out a series of requirements that must be achieved over 10 years before anyone here illegally can obtain a permanent resident green card. These include:
(1) Roughly doubling the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border, to at least 38,405.
(2) Completing 700 miles of pedestrian fencing along the border, which would require approximately 350 new miles of fencing.
(3) Installing a host of new security measures and technologies in specified locations along the border, including specific numbers of surveillance towers, camera systems, ground sensors, radiation detectors, mobile surveillance systems, drones, helicopters, airborne radar systems, planes and ships.
(4) Implementing a system for all employers to verify electronically their workers' legal status.
(5) Setting up a new electronic system to track people leaving the nation's airports and seaports.
—The border security improvements are designed to achieve 100 percent surveillance of the border with Mexico and ensure that 90 percent of would-be crossers are caught or turned back.
—If the goals of a 90 percent effectiveness rate and continuous surveillance on the border are not met within five years, a Southern Border Security Commission made up of border-state governors and others would determine how to achieve them.
—Border security spending in the bill totals around $46 billion.
PATH TO CITIZENSHIP
—The estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally could obtain "registered provisional immigrant status" six months after enactment of the bill as long as:
(1) The Homeland Security Department has developed border security and fencing plans, per the specifications set out in the bill.
(2) They arrived in the U.S. prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and maintained continuous physical presence since then.
(3) They do not have a felony conviction or three or more misdemeanors.
(4) They pay a $500 fine.
—People in provisional legal status could work and travel in the U.S. but would not be eligible for most federal benefits, including health care and welfare.
—The provisional legal status lasts six years and is renewable for another six years for $500.
—People deported for noncriminal reasons can apply to re-enter in provisional status if they have a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, or if they had been brought to the U.S. as a child.
—After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and lawful permanent resident status if they are current on their taxes and pay a $1,000 fine, have maintained continuous physical presence in the U.S., meet work requirements and learn English. Also the border triggers must have been met, and all people waiting to immigrate through the legal system as of the date of enactment of the legislation must have been dealt with.
—People brought to the country as youths would be able to get green cards in five years, and citizenship immediately thereafter.
—The cap on the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers would be immediately raised from 65,000 a year to 110,000 a year, with 25,000 more set aside for people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. school. The cap could go as high as 180,000 a year depending on demand.
—New protections would crack down on companies that use H-1B visas to train workers in the U.S. only to ship them back overseas.
—Immigrants with certain extraordinary abilities, such as professors, researchers, multinational executives and athletes, would be exempted from existing green-card limits. So would graduates of U.S. universities with job offers and degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.
—A startup visa would be made available to foreign entrepreneurs seeking to come to the U.S. to start a company.
—A new merit visa, for a maximum of 250,000 people a year, would award points to prospective immigrants based on their education, employment, length of residence in the U.S. and other considerations. Those with the most points would earn the visas.
—The bill would eliminate the government's Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which randomly awards 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, so that more visas can be awarded for employment and merit ties.
—A new W visa would allow up to 200,000 low-skilled workers a year into the country for jobs in construction, long-term care, hospitality and other industries.
—A new agriculture worker visa program would be established to replace the existing program. Agriculture workers already here illegally, who've worked in the industry at least two years, could qualify in another five years for green cards if they stay in the industry.
—Under current law, U.S. citizens can sponsor spouses, children and siblings to come to the U.S., with limits on some categories. The bill would bar citizens from sponsoring their siblings and would allow them to sponsor married sons and daughters only if those children are under age 31.
—Legal permanent residents can currently sponsor spouses and children, but the numbers are limited. The bill eliminates that limit.
—Within four years, all employers must implement E-Verify, a program to verify electronically their workers' legal status. As part of that, noncitizens would be required to show photo ID that must match with a photo in the E-Verify system.
House conservatives generally oppose citizenship for immigrants living in the country unlawfully. Many also prefer a step-by-step approach rather than a comprehensive bill like the legislation the Senate passed Thursday on a bipartisan vote of 68-32.
Following the Senate vote, President Barack Obama, who's made an immigration overhaul a top second-term priority, called on the House to act.
"Today, the Senate did its job. It's now up to the House to do the same," Obama said in a statement issued as he traveled in Africa. "As this process moves forward, I urge everyone who cares about this issue to keep a watchful eye. Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop common-sense reform from becoming a reality. We cannot let that happen."
Members of the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight, the senators who drafted the bill and hoped a resounding vote total would pressure the House, echoed the plea.
"To our friends in the House, we ask for your consideration and we stand ready to sit down and negotiate with you," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. "You may have different views on different aspects of this issue, but all of us share the same goal, and that is to take 11 million people out of the shadows, secure our borders and make sure that this is the nation of opportunity and freedom."
Meanwhile, Mexico welcomed the passage by the U.S. Senate of an immigration bill. But it also expressed concern that some of the security measures that form part of the reform could affect the relationship between the two countries.
The Foreign Relations Department said in a statement Thursday that approval of the bill could offer a chance for millions of Mexicans living in the United State to improve their lives.
At a news conference, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear the House would not simply take up the Senate bill as some Democrats and outside advocates are calling for, but would chart its own legislation with a focus on border security. How exactly Boehner will proceed remained unclear, but the speaker has called a special meeting of his majority Republicans for July 10 to go over options.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We're going to do our own bill," Boehner said. "It'll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people."
The bill passed by the Senate devotes $46 billion to border security improvements, including calling for a doubling of the border patrol stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border and the completion of 700 miles of fencing — changes added at the last minute to attract Republican support. No one would be able to get a permanent resident green card until those border enhancements and others were in place.
The bill also makes it mandatory for employers to check their workers' legal status, sets up new visa programs to allow workers into the country and establishes new tracking systems at seaports and airports to keep better tabs on people entering and leaving the country.
At its contentious core, though, is a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in this country illegally.
Without such a provision, senators say the legislation could not pass the Senate. With it, its prospects are difficult in the House.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted that the House might end up having to pass the Senate bill after failing to find any other avenue forward and feeling pressure from the public to act.
But that approach is strongly opposed by many conservatives. Boehner also dismissed the idea of relying on Democratic votes instead of a majority of his Republicans to pass an immigration bill.
At the same time Boehner said he hopes the bill will be bipartisan, and he encouraged a House group of four Democrats and three Republicans trying to forge a compromise to continue their efforts.
He offered no details on how a House bill could be both bipartisan and supported by more than half of his own rank and file, given that most of the single-issue immigration bills that have moved through the House Judiciary Committee recently did so on party-line votes over the protests of Democrats. None envisions legal status for immigrants now here illegally.
Boehner declined to say whether there were circumstances under which he could support a pathway to citizenship, but he made clear that securing the border was a priority.
"People have to have confidence that the border is secure before anything else is really going to work. Otherwise, we repeat the mistakes of 1986," he said, referring to the last time Congress overhauled the immigration system.
One option could be to bring up one or more of four narrowly focused immigration bills approved by the Judiciary Committee this week and last, hoping to pass it and use it as a vehicle for House members to enter into negotiations with senators on a merged bill in the fall or winter.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.