Immigration Reform Bill Inches towards Consensus

A bi-partisan group of senators has announced that comprehensive immigration reform legislation may be closer to becoming a reality, as senior Democrats and Republicans in the Senate reached a compromise on the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 330) introduced in the Senate on January 18, 2007. President Bush has endorsed this compromise. Legislators and commentators acknowledged, however, that passage into law is by no means assured, so employers should monitor developments as the Senate Compromise announced on May 17, 2007 makes its way through Congress.

The measure under consideration would recognize the need for stronger border security as well as increase interior and workplace enforcement of immigration laws through higher penalties and a mandatory electronic employment verification system, among others. The measure would also create a way for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to gain legal status. Further, it would address the significant H-1B shortfall, which this April resulted in oversubscription of the 65,000 available visas on the first day USCIS began accepting petitions. The reform bill is slated for debate in the Senate next week, and would also need to secure approval in the House of Representatives, where it is expected to meet with strong opposition and efforts at modification. Even some supporters of reform, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voiced concern about the bill in its current form.

Key aspects of the bill would include the roll-out of an electronic employment verification system for checking the immigration status of employees coupled with increased penalties for unlawful hiring, employment, and recordkeeping violations. Once enacted, employers in national security-related industries, industries involving critical infrastructure, and federal contractors may be required to electronically verify employees, including new hires and/or current employees, with additional employers or industries added after 6 months. All employers would be required to electronically verify new hires within 18 months of enactment, or on the date on which the Secretary certifies that the system is operational. Once the system is implemented, all employers would be required to verify all current employees within by 3 years after enactment.

Regarding legalization, the measure would introduce a "points system" similar to that used in Canada, which would allow immigrants to qualify for residence based on qualifications such as education, language, and job skills, in addition to family ties. The bill would establish a Guest Worker program, long promoted by the President, to allow foreign workers into the U.S. for two years at a time under a new "Y visa". Finally, the bill would create a new "Z visa" designation, allowing illegal aliens already in the U.S. to legalize through payment of a $5,000 fine and successful processing through the immigration system, among other requirements. The proposed legalization process would only become effective after establishment and roll-out of a workplace electronic employment verification system, requiring the verification of all employees within three years, and implementation of border security enhancements including additional border patrol agents and expansion of the border fence.

Updates will be posted as debate on the bill progresses.