Path to Citizenship, New Preference Systems Proposed in Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

The introduction this month of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 by House Democrats appears to be a first, bold step in the fight to reform our immigration laws. The plan, co-sponsored by 91 Representatives, would change the rules surrounding family re-unification, skilled worker preferences, and perhaps most significantly, a path toward citizenship for undocumented workers.

Although any final bill would be heavily modified by both the House and the Senate, the following proposals by Rep. Gutierrez (D-Illinois) could change the circumstances of those currently seeking immigration status, as well as those who wish to immigrate:

  • » Conditional non-immigrant status for undocumented immigrants, authorizing visa holders to travel and work for six years. After the initial six years, visa holders can adjust to LPR (green card) status, and eventually, apply for citizenship. Both the conditional visa and green card would require the applicant to complete background checks, prove their contributions to the United States through service, employment, or education, and pay a $500 fine.
  • » A drastic reduction in waiting times. Unused family- and employment-based visas would carry over from one year to the next, and overall limits for green card preference categories would increase. In addition, more visas would be allocated to countries like India and China, and away from tiny countries which never use them.
  • » Automatic re-unification of families of LPRs. Under current law, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are automatically granted status, but green card holders’ families must wait in line, often separated from their family.
  • » Automatic exemptions from quotas for certain workers. Workers in highest demand, those who have a Masters or higher and have worked in the U.S., and those with post-graduate degrees from U.S. universities would be exempted from numerical immigration quotas, paralleling “immediate relatives” within the family-based system. Those with Masters of higher degrees would also be exempted from some aspects of the labor certification process.
  • » Allowing early adjust status. Due to backlogs, those with approved visa petitions must wait years for their priority dates to become current, during which time they must continually try to renew their H1-B or other non-immigrant visas. The new system would allow workers to obtain work and travel permits.
  • » Increased flexibility for immigration judges in Cancellation of Removal proceedings.
  • » Relief for surviving spouses and children of deceased visa petitioners. A loophole in current law allows the government to remove spouses and children of some petitioners upon his or her untimely death.
  • » An end to programs allowing local officials to enforce federal immigration law. This enforcement has been long associated with racial prejudice and targeting of minorities.

These positive developments would be balanced by an increase in funding for border security and a new system for verifying immigration status for the purpose of employment.

So far, Rep. Gutierrez’s bill is the only concrete proposal to come forth. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) plans to introduce a more moderate bill early in 2010, which is rumored to include a far less generous pathway to citizenship. Some of the less controversial aspects of Gutierrez’s plan, however, could more easily be included in a compromise bill.

Combined with Obama’s campaign promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform, these recent legislative developments give immigrant communities hope for relief and re-unification in the short term.