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Glossary of terms used in immigration debate

No legislation is exactly “Pat the Bunny,” but comprehensive immigration reform is certainly one of the most wide-ranging and complicated issues imaginable when lawmakers start trying to put pen to paper. There’s already a tangle of existing immigration laws, and the delicate compromises being crafted by bipartisan legislators means that more new details are being tweaked along the way.

Here’s a brief glossary of a few of the major terms you will be hearing as the debate unfolds:

TRIGGERS:  Border security is a top issue for many lawmakers who say that illegal immigration must be halted before undocumented individuals in the country can be set on a path to citizenship. The Obama administration and some Democrats have said that it’s not fair for the law to require specific border security metrics – or “triggers” – to be met before those in the country illegally can be eligible for legal status. The latest reporting on the Senate Gang of Eight bill indicates that it will require the Department of Homeland Security, during the first decade after the bill is passed, to work to ensure 100 percent surveillance of the nation’s southern border and apprehension of 90 percent those who attempt to enter the country illegally. That plan must be operational  - and other criteria dealing with worker verification systems – would have to be met before former illegal immigrants who have had “probationary legal status” (which also requires a 10 year wait) would be able to apply for Green Cards. Whether or not that’s fair will be a major topic of debate in the coming weeks.

FAMILY REUNIFICATION: The most common way that foreign-born immigrants live legally in the United States is through a family reunification visa. If you are the spouse or minor child of a U.S. citizen (first preference), there is no limit on your eligibility for a visa to become a legal permanent resident. For other relationships – like the adult children or siblings of citizens, there are annual caps. Some of those categories may be eliminated altogether in the legislation being mulled in Congress, which some pro-reform groups believe would unfairly break up families.

“THE BACK OF THE LINE”: This is a tricky one. The idea that illegal immigrants should have to go “to the back of the line” in order to become citizens is espoused by the reform effort’s supporters and opponents alike. But experts say that’s a convenient but inaccurate term because there’s more than one line. Those waiting for family visas have various waiting processes – which vary in length based on the kind of family association and the country of origin of the applicant. Those applying based on employment go through a separate process, as do refugees to the United States. Eligible undocumented individuals would go through yet another lengthy process, which could lead to ... (see next)

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP: The bipartisan plan coming out of the Senate is expected to require undocumented workers to pass a background check and pay back taxes and fines before becoming eligible for “probationary legal status.” But that doesn’t mean they become citizens right away. They would have to maintain that status for 10 years before becoming eligible to apply for a Green Card, which in turn makes them eligible to start the process of becoming a citizen if they choose to.

GUEST WORKERS: One of the early sticking points in the negotiations was a dispute between business and labor over temporary low-skilled workers – specifically, how much they should be paid and how many of them there should be. The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO hashed out a deal over the Easter weekend to create a new “W” visa for these workers, who are in the hospitality, janitorial, retail, construction and other industries. (That deal didn’t address temporary agricultural workers -- that was a separate negotiation between different groups.)


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