By Attorneys Robert Reeves and Jeremiah Johnson

“We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do it as good as we can. We’ve got to do it right now.” – Senator Trent Lott, Senate minority whip.

This past week the White House and a bipartisan group of Senators announced an agreement, a “grand bargain,” on comprehensive immigration reform. Senator Edward Kennedy then introduced Senate Bill 1348 (“S.1348”) and the floor debate has begun. Currently the Senate is debating Senator Kennedy’s bill, offering and voting on amendments each day. Although the Senate bill has attracted critics from both sides of the political aisle, one thing most people agree on is that the time for action on comprehensive immigration reform is now. As the debate moves forward over the next couple of weeks and months, Reeves & Associates will continue to provide detailed analysis of not only what the proposal includes, but perhaps more importantly – who the proposal includes. Below is a good look at Senate Bill 1348, the current framework for comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration Enforcement
It should be of little surprise that the grand bargain reached by the group of Senators included strong enforcement measures. True to form, the Senate bill devotes three of the seven titles to enforcement, specifically: 1) enforcement of our borders; 2) interior enforcement; and 3) work place enforcement. Regarding border enforcement, the Senate bill proposes to increase the total number of custom and border patrol officers; construct additional fencing along the southern border; and invest in technological measures such as unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras and sensors. To strengthen interior enforcement, the Senate bill proposes to increase the number of immigration personnel (such as immigration adjudicating officers, trial attorneys and Immigration Judges); and stiffen the penalties relating to aliens failing to comply with removal orders and criminal activities, including gang violence and immigration fraud offenses. One of the more interesting proposals found in the Senate bill is the possibility of a reduction in the period of inadmissibility for unlawful presence if the alien agrees to voluntarily depart the United States. The final enforcement measure deals with work place verification and enforcement. Under the Senate bill, the Government will establish an electronic eligibility verification system. Once in place, employers will be required to register with the system and submit employee’s names, social security numbers, and alien numbers.

Legalization through the “Z” Visa
Just as any comprehensive proposal naturally includes enforcement provisions, comprehensive immigration reform must also include legalization for undocumented aliens. The Senate bill does just that by creating a new four-year renewable “Z” visa. Although most of the Senate bill’s provisions are subject to “triggers,” it is important to note that the new Z visa will be available to applicants soon after enactment. Furthermore, a Z visa applicant may include his spouse, elderly parents and/or his minor children with his application.

To be eligible, illegal aliens must have been continuously physically present in the United States since January 1, 2007; admissible under the immigration law; and working. The Senate bill contains a number of exceptions to the admissibility requirement for Z visa applicants including exceptions to the bars for unlawful presence, failure to attend a removal proceeding and falsely claiming being a United States citizen. Moreover, applicants who are subject to final orders of removal (and did not leave) are eligible for a hardship waiver.

The Senate bill proposes an extensive application process beginning six months after the date of enactment. The applicant must submit a detail application form with supporting documents evidencing employment information, immigration history and other information regarding eligibility. Acceptable forms of evidence will include government records, bank records, business/employer records, union or day laborer records, and remittance records. The applicant must also undergo a background check, attend an interview before USCIS and register for the selective service (if required.)

Although the Z visa is initially valid for four years, the visa may be extended indefinitely until the applicant applies for lawful permanent resident status (a green card.) The Government will begin to accept applications for permanent residents from Z visa holders once the current visa backlogs have been cleared. Under the Senate bill, only the principal Z visa holder will be subject to the “touchback” provision – requiring him or her to return to their home country to apply. As indicated above, the Senate bill would waive the unlawful presence bars for Z visa applicants.

A Guest Worker Program
In cooperation with the White House, the Senate bill includes the President’s temporary guest worker program, also known as a “Y” Visa. Under the Senate’s proposal, temporary workers will be allowed to enter the United States to work for up to three two year periods, with at least a year spent outside the United States between each period. The Senate bill allows immediate family members to join the guest worker in the United States, provided the guest worker has the financial means to support them and they are covered under health insurance. On March 23, 2007, the Senate voted to keep this proposal in the bill.

A Merit Based System
Perhaps one of the most interesting, although hotly debated, proposals in the Senate bill is the plan to shift the current immigrant visa system to a merit based system. Specifically the Senate bill proposes to “rebalance” the current visa allocations and then “restructure” the current system to a merit based system. The proposal attempts to rebalance the visa allocations by dedicating 440,000 visas of the 557,000 visas available exclusively to backlog reduction, seeking to eliminate the backlog within 8 years. The rebalancing will also include specific designations for guest worker visas. The Senate bill also proposes to restructure the current visa system to a merit based system. Merit points are assigned according to employment, educational attainment, knowledge in English and civics, and family ties to the United States. Although the restructuring of the current immigrant visa system may eliminate certain family preferences, the Senate bill provides a number of hardship based immigrant visas for individuals that would qualify under the current system.

Much of the Senate bill’s proposals discussed above will not come about if certain “triggers” are not met. Specifically, the triggers are tied to the enforcement provisions, including installation of new border fencing, creation of the electronic employment eligibility verification system and the processing of Z visa applicants.

Although not perfect, the Senate bill provides a promising framework for real comprehensive immigration reform that will create a new immigration system; secure our nation’s borders; provide legalization for an estimated 12 million immigrants; stem future illegal immigration; reduce visa backlogs; and offer a temporary work force. If the Senate passes a bill, the House of Representatives must undergo a similar process before the President can sign the bill into law. Nevertheless, now there is real debate – now there is real action – now there is real hope for millions of immigrants and their families. Reeves & Associates will continue to provide the most current information regarding this historic opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform.