Senate Panel Passes Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

Senate Panel Passes Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill
March 28, 2006

March 28, 2006

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that addresses the needs of U.S. businesses, workers and national security.

We applaud leaders in the Senate for approving a comprehensive immigration bill in the Judiciary Committee. The bill reflects the consensus of many national and local groups representing business, labor, religious organizations and immigrants rights advocates that the government must take a comprehensive approach to provide a real solution to our immigration problems.

The Committee proposal includes a number of important provisions:

1. An increase in the annual cap on H-1B visas to 115,000. If the 115,000 limit is reached in any fiscal year, the limit for the following year would be increased by 20%. The bill would exempt from the numerical limit (including the current 20,000 additional visas set aside for advance degree holders) advanced degree holders in the science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields.

2. An increase in the annual cap for employment-based (EB) visas from 140,000 to 290,000. The bill would exempt from the numerical limit advanced degree holders in STEM fields who have worked in a related field as a nonimmigrant for three or more years. The bill would also exempt outstanding researchers and professors, beneficiaries of "national interest" waivers, and family members of the principal applicant. Petitions filed on behalf of workers who hold STEM advanced degrees from U.S. institutions would be exempt from labor certification. Spouses and children of the principal applicants would not count against the quota. A guest worker program that would admit 400,000 new workers per year and would allow adjustment to permanent residence after four years.

3. A program that would permit currently out-of-status workers to remain in the U.S. and work for six years, and adjust to permanent residence by meeting certain requirements, such as payment of $2,000 in fines. The beneficiaries under this program would be required to go to the "back of the line" so as to not displace any applicants for lawful immigration.

4. The "DREAM Act" which would allow undocumented children who are accepted at a U.S. college or university or who wish to enlist in the military to
become permanent residents.

5. A requirement that intra-company transferees who enter the U.S. on an L-1 visa to start a new company only receive a one-year visa initially. After the first year, if the company demonstrates that it is legitimate, then the L visa may be extended. Spouses of the L-1 visa holder may not work during the first year.

6. An extension of the optional practical training (OPT) period to 24 months for students following graduation. The bill would create a new "F-4" visa class for students who come to the U.S. to seek an advanced degree in a STEM field. F-4 students would not be subject to the immigrant intent bar ("Section 214(b) bar") and would be given 18 months to find employment in the U.S. A direct path to permanent residence for F-4 students would be available with payment of a $2,000 fee.

7. Mandatory and universal participation in an electronic employment verification system within 5 years of enactment, beginning with employers in the critical infrastructure (e.g., power plants, airports) after the first 180 days and followed by employers of 5,000 persons or more after two years. Participating employers would enjoy "safe harbor" while failure to participate would be deemed a violation of laws prohibiting hiring unauthorized workers. The bill would retain current attestation requirements, but employers would be allowed to use electronic signature and storage. There would be increases in civil and criminal penalties for employing undocumented workers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee eliminated the controversial provision proposed by the House of Representatives that would have made unlawful status in the United States a criminal penalties on illegal immigrants. The Committee also approved an amendment that would protect church and charitable groups, as well as individuals, from criminal prosecution for providing food, shelter, medical care and counseling to undocumented immigrants.

Before the bill becomes law, it must go through debate by the full Senate. Should it be passed by the full Senate, it must be reconciled with the House of Representatives' bill, and then go to the president for his signature.