A day after a bi-partisan Senate group outlined an immigration reform plan, President Barack Obama held a press conference in Nevada on January 29 to announce his own proposal for widespread immigration reform, noting that his proposal was in line with the principles the eight Senators proposed. Although he promised reform in his first term, he believes that “now is the time.” The President said he is committed to working on a solution to help tighten our borders and U.S. national security while developing enhanced work visa options for employers and addressing the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. 

The President discussed the moral and economic impacts of immigration reform. The United States is a nation of laws and of immigrants, he said, and that once “we” were “them.” His plan focuses on enforcement, legalization and family unity based on four major themes, to be expanded on over the coming weeks:

Border Security. The proposal will increase security at all ports of entry, fight transnational crime, and attempt to eliminate visa and passport fraud. Part of this will be done by creating liaisons with border communities, ensuring there are enough immigration judges, and providing help to those who cannot afford legal representation.

Employment Enforcement. Targeting employers who are “gaming the system” by hiring undocumented workers will be a key element of the proposal. Making E-Verify mandatory for all employers (with some exceptions) over the next five years and increasing penalties for employers who violate the laws will be important. (This seems to presage an increase the number of Form I-9 audits nationwide.) Employees will be given protection related to confidentiality, due process and workers rights.  

Earned Citizenship. The approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants must be brought “out of the shadows” and on a pathway to contributing to the economy and our nation, the President said. An expedited path will be provided to individuals who qualify as DREAMERS and certain agricultural workers. A procedure requiring background checks, English proficiency, and payment of fees and penalties will be provided to all other qualified individuals. (The backlogs for legal immigration must be eliminated before any of these individuals can begin the process to legalization.)

Legal Immigration. The proposal would work to eliminate the family- and employment-based visa backlogs by recapturing unused visas and temporarily increasing the annual visa allotment.  On an ongoing basis, the annual visa numbers allotted for family-based categories will be increased by up to 20 percent and country caps will be eliminated for employment-based categories. Also, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) masters and Ph.D. graduates will have a direct path to permanent residence so long as they have employment.  Finally, the President’s proposal provides for same-sex couples to petition for their family members.

A complete description of the President’s proposed plan is available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/29/fact-sheet-fixing-our-broken-immigration-system-so-everyone-plays-rules.  

The President promised to send a bill to the House of Representative for an up or down vote if the House cannot deliver its own bill in the near future.

Senate Plans

On January 28, a bi-partisan group of eight Senators, consisting of four Democrats (Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado) and four Republicans (John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona), announced plans to introduce new immigration legislation. They said their bill will address securing the borders, verifying immigration status, and creating a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million illegal immigrants present in the U.S. 

The “Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform” summarizes the policies they proposed. It addresses the following four goals: 

  1. Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required; 
  2. Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
  3. Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and
  4. Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

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Demographic changes among voters and their impact in the recent U.S. presidential election reportedly have helped stimulate efforts to reach a bi-partisan solution.  Many employers are pushing for change, too. The present immigration system hinders their ability to acquire and retain global talent.  In May 2012, the Partnership for a New American Economy and Partnership for New York City published the critical assessment, “Not Coming to America.” According to the report, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. were started either by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. Further developments are expected.