WASHINGTON — The U.S. immigration system would undergo dramatic changes under a bipartisan Senate bill that puts a new focus on prospective immigrants' merit and employment potential, while seeking to end illegal immigration once and for all by creating legal avenues for workers to come here.
The bill would put the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines plus additional fees, and would begin only after steps have been taken to secure the border, according to an outline of the measure.
The sweeping legislation also would remake the nation's inefficient legal immigration system, creating new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new "merit visa" aimed at bringing people with talents to the U.S. Senators had planned to formally introduce the bill Tuesday, but after Monday's bombing at the Boston Marathon a planned press event was delayed until later in the week.
Employers would face tough new requirements to check the legal status of all workers. Billions of dollars would be poured into border security, and millions of people who've been waiting overseas for years, sometimes decades, in legal immigration backlogs would see their cases speeded up.
Overall, the changes represent the most dramatic overhaul to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter-century.
"There's a realization among most Republicans and Democrats that this issue needs to be addressed," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the effort. "You can't have 11 million people living in the shadows forever."
McCain and another leader of the group, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., were to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to brief him on the legislation. It's a top second-term priority for the president.
The bill is the result of months of secretive negotiations among eight lawmakers. In addition to Schumer and McCain, they are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, working with Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The legislation is a painstaking attempt to balance a focus on border security and legal enforcement sought by Republicans in the group with Democratic priorities like making citizenship widely accessible. Crafting the bill was a time-consuming process of seeking compromise and bringing together traditionally opposed groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, the United Farm Workers and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
But even harder work lies ahead now that legislative language will become public for other lawmakers and groups on all sides to examine and react to. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the bill beginning Friday and likely move to amend and vote on it in May, with action on the Senate floor expected later in the summer. The Republican-controlled House also must act, and opposition from some conservatives there is likely to be fierce.
"The Senate proposal issues an open invitation to enter the country illegally," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said on the House floor Monday. "Millions more will do so before the border is secure. The Senate proposal will dramatically increase illegal immigration."
Under the bill, immigrants here illegally could gain a provisional legal status six months after enactment as long as they meet certain criteria, and if the Homeland Security Department has moved forward on plans to secure the border. They would remain in that provisional status for 10 years, able to work legally but barred from federal benefits like welfare or health care. After 10 years they could seek green cards conferring permanent legal status, and three years after that they could petition for citizenship.
They would have to pay a total of $2,000 in fines along the way, and at least hundreds more in fees, though that number has not been determined.
People brought here illegally as youths would have a faster path: They could get green cards in five years and would become eligible for citizenship immediately thereafter.
U.S. citizens no longer would be able to sponsor their siblings for eventual U.S. citizenship, a change activist groups have opposed. That's among several changes aimed at rebalancing an immigration system that now awards around 15 percent of green cards to people with employment ties, and the majority to people with family ties, to a system that awards 45 percent to 50 percent of green cards based on employment ties.
There would be no limit in the number of green cards awarded to people of extraordinary ability in science, arts, education, business or athletics, or to outstanding professors, doctors and others. A new startup visa would be created for foreign entrepreneurs trying to come here to start their own companies.
Visas for highly skilled workers greatly in demand by technology companies would nearly double. Low-skilled workers would be able to come in for jobs in construction, long-term care and other industries, ultimately up to 200,000 a year. A new agriculture visa program would bring farm workers to the U.S.; farm workers already here illegally would get a faster path to citizenship than others here illegally, able to seek a green card in five years, an effort to create a stable agricultural workforce.
The bill is titled the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013."