While NBC News has reported on many of the key aspects of the new bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill, it’s a huge piece of legislative machinery with a lot of interlocking gears.
The bill was formally filed in the Senate early Wednesday morning - you can read the 844 pages of it here.
But here are some of the main things you'll need to know:
Q: What exactly is the path to citizenship for undocumented individuals currently living in the United States?
A: If you’re an undocumented person who has lived continually in the United States since Dec. 31, 2011, you will be eligible for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status provided that you have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors and that you have not voted illegally. You must pay a fine of $500 as well as back taxes before you can gain this status, which allows you to travel freely and work for any employer. You will not be eligible for federal means-tested public benefits. After six years, if you have not committed any deportable offenses, you can renew your RPI status, which requires an additional fee of $500. After another four years – provided that other external security “triggers” have been met – you can apply for a merit-based visa. You must pay an additional $1000 fine, demonstrate that you have worked regularly in the United States, and show an understanding of civics and the English language. Three years after that, you can become a full citizen.
Q: What are “triggers?”
A: First, the government needs to write a border security and fencing plans within six months. Once those plans are submitted, undocumented immigrants will be eligible to apply for RPI status. For them to be able to apply for visas, the plans have to be shown to be operational. (The goal is 100 percent surveillance of the border and a 90 percent apprehension rate in the border’s most high risk areas.) If security goals aren’t reached in five years, a group of border governors and experts will be formed to make recommendations on how to achieve them. New entry-exit systems and the E-Verify system for employers will also have to be in place; that process that could take up to five years.
Q: Okay. But why 10 years until green card eligibility ?
A: A Senate aide to a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” gives three reasons. First, drafters of the bill wanted to make sure that it’s no faster for undocumented individuals (except DREAMers and some agricultural workers) to get a green card than it is for people trying to come to the country legally. Currently, if you are living in the country illegally and return to your home country, you are subject to a decade-long ban before you can return to the United States. Second, the 10-year period gives enough time to clear the existing backlog of legal immigrants before adding to the line of people attempting to come to the country. Third, it makes the overall bill cheaper because the longer people remain on provisional immigrant status, the less money the government spends on benefits.
Q: Wait, but how will immigrants figure out if they owe back taxes? Will they really have to pay them?
A: Yes, immigrants will have to pay back taxes. The immigration legislation leaves those calculations up to the Internal Revenue Service. People applying to stay in the country will have to settle any bills the IRS says they owe.
Q: How does the merit-based visa work? I heard something about a point system?
A: The new system of merit-based visas has two tracks, a Senate aide explains. Both are based on merit -- but the first considers people who have been in the country for a long time. If you've been waiting in the employment backlog, family backlog or if you’ve been in the country working under a temporary status for 10 years, you'll be eligible for a green card. There’s no point system attached.
The second track is for people outside the country, and it assigns points for different factors. This includes options for high-skilled workers with college and advanced degrees as well as for low-skilled workers in the agricultural and "W" section visa programs. After the law is implemented, anyone who wants to come to the United States would go through this merit-based system, which is designed to reward the most deserving candidates.
Q: What about people who come to America because their employer specifically wants them here?
A: Employers will still have a separate system for petitioning for visas for their workers. Anyone with a Ph.D. working in a technical (STEM) field would additionally be exempt from annual caps on employer-based visas.
Q: That all sounds expensive. How much does this thing cost?
There are $17 billion in costs already in the bill, mostly related to border security, a Senate aide says. But the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t scored the bill yet, so it’s not clear how much that cost will be offset by other factors and fees. The most expensive piece of the bill pays for 3,500 new Customs and Border Patrol inspectors at field offices; this will help move people through airports and land ports more quickly. A lot of the cost will be covered by the fees and fines paid by applicants, particularly the total of $2000 in fines that an undocumented immigrant has to pay on the way to a green card. Gang of Eight staff expect that the bill, if its total effects on the nation’s economic growth and revenue streams are taken into account, will be a net positive for the economy in both the long and short terms.