Yesterday, the Senate voted 62 to 36 to pass S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Passage of the bill comes after nearly four weeks of intense debate on the Senate floor and votes on more than forty amendments. Some highlights of the Senate bill include:

  • Path to Legal Status for Undocumented Workers Already in the U.S.
    Undocumented workers in the U.S. for at least five years would be eligible for six years of work authorization and eventual permanent legal status, upon payment of a fine and back taxes, meeting English and civics requirements, and passing a background check. These workers would only receive legal permanent residence (“Green Card”) status after current family backlogs are cleared. Once LPR status is granted, the workers could apply for U.S. citizenship five years later;

    Undocumented workers in the U.S. for less than five but more than two years would be placed in “Deferred Mandatory Departure” status. These workers would need to leave the country within three years, but could return. They could apply for readmission as a temporary guest worker before their departure. Spouses and children would be waived from the departure requirement;

    Illegal immigrants here for less than two years would need to leave the country and could apply for the guest worker program, but there would be no guarantee of return;

  • New Employer Verification System
    Employers would be required to use an electronic system within 18 months in order to verify that new hires are legal. Fines for hiring illegal workers would be increased to $20,000 for each worker;

  • Employment Visa Backlog Relief
    A new family-preference cap of 480,000 would be created, adding 260,000 new visas per year to eliminate backlogs. Those individuals with permanent residence applications currently pending would receive Green Cards before any of the undocumented workers;

    A new employment-based cap of 450,000 would be created for a 10-year period, adding 310,000 new visas per year. The total number of employment-based immigrant visas available to workers, including their immediate relatives, would be capped at 650,000;

    Thirty-percent of the employment-based cap would be reserved for “essential” workers in the new H-2C category;

  • Cap Exemptions for Highly-Skilled Workers
    Student visa rules would be revised to allow for dual intent, an expansion of OPT, and the creation of a direct path to permanent status for certain advanced-degree students;

    The H-1B cap would be increased to 115,000 and would be flexible in subsequent years to account for market demand. Advanced-degree holders in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) would be exempt from the cap;

    STEM advanced-degree holders, outstanding researchers, and aliens of extraordinary ability would be exempt from the annual employment-based cap;

  • Creation of a New Temporary Worker Program
    A new temporary worker program would be created that would allow for 200,000 new “essential” workers per year. The H-2C visa would be valid for an initial period of three years, could be renewed for an additional three years, and would be portable to any employer of your choice. Visa holders could apply for permanent residence within the new employment-based cap. Aliens who have worked for four years would be eligible to self-petition for an immigrant visa;

  • Increased Security
    Border security would be enhanced with the creation of a 370-mile fence on the border. The bill backs President Bush’s plan to temporarily send 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrants convicted of felonies or three misdemeanors would be barred from becoming legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens.

While the Senate’s passage of the bill is certainly a significant move forward, perhaps the biggest obstacle is yet to come – finding a compromise with the House. The House has already passed an “enforcement-only” immigration bill that offers no guest worker program or path to legal status for undocumented workers. In fact, House leaders remain in strong opposition to the earned legalization and temporary worker programs contained in the Senate bill. Both bodies must now negotiate to adopt a “conference” bill that can be passed and sent on to the President.

It is important to note that, as of this writing, there have been no changes in current immigration law. We will continue to closely monitor this issue and will keep you updated if and when there are new developments in the law. It’s our hope that Congress and the President will bring much-needed immigration relief to improve the current system.