United States immigration reform took a major step on June 27, when the US Senate passed a bill that would greatly expand opportunities for immigrants seeking entry and lawful permanent residence in the United States. The bill is called the “Border Security Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” and has since been passed to the House of Representatives for consideration. The bill is the creation of a group of seven U.S. senators that includes both Democrats and Republicans, including Florida’s Marco Rubio. If passed by the House, the bill would create a system for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. to gain legal status, and greatly increase the opportunities for those currently outside the U.S. to enter on a permanent or temporary basis.
Though the Senate bill’s fate will not be determined until the House convenes on the issue, President Obama, who publicly endorsed the bill, has recently taken other steps to change immigration law and create new residency opportunities for some individuals. After the United States Supreme Court found on June 26 that part of the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) was unconstitutional, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to apply the change to policy. This change forces USCIS to recognize same-sex marriages for the purposes of immigration status, allowing lawful permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex spouse for an immigration visa. These developments may signal a shift in Unites States immigration policy, and may soon lead to a complete restructuring of current law.
How the Senate bill would help immigrants seeking legal status in the Unites States:
If the bill passes the House, it would create a variety of ways for undocumented immigrants currently living in the US to attain legal status. It would also allow for the granting of hundreds of thousands of new visas, both immigrant and nonimmigrant, to individuals seeking entry, work authorization, or permanent residency in the U.S. Undocumented immigrants and their immediate families would be able to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status if they have been in the U.S. since December 31, 2011, and meet additional background-related criteria. RPI status would be valid for six years and renewable based on meeting certain criteria, including continued employment, and would enable holders to apply for Lawful Permanent Residency and eventually U.S. citizenship. Attorney Marc Wites of Wites Law Firm, a Florida based law firm located in Lighthouse Point, which provides immigration services, explained that the proposed policies, such as the RPI status in the Senate bill, would represent a significant benefit to the quality of life for many immigrants. “It is very disheartening seeing clients faced with little recourse when trying to bring their family members to the U.S. Immigration reform of this magnitude would immediately have a positive effect on the South Florida community,” stated Wites.
The bill would also greatly benefit those seeking entry into the U.S. on work visas, with more visa opportunities available for skilled and non-skilled workers, while also creating additional investor, student and retiree visas. The bill identifies significant raises to the number of visas given to skilled workers on H-1B and L-1 visas, and also increases the minimum wage employers must pay to H-1B employees. Additionally, the bill creates the W nonimmigrant visa, which would replace the current H-2A agricultural worker program, allowing less skilled agricultural and non-agricultural workers to apply for a renewable three-year visa.
For investors, the bill offers an X visa for entrepreneurs whose businesses have generated over $100,000 in investment, or alternatively have met job-creation and revenue requirements. There is also a provision allowing students on F-1 visas to state their intent to remain in the U.S. permanently, and a provision granting visas to retired foreign nationals over 55 years old who have $500,000 to buy a home in the U.S.
Future Prospects for the Senate bill:
The House will likely view the Senate bill with some resistance, due to the reluctance of many House Republicans to alter immigration policy, but there is hope that change will come in the near future despite the uncertainty. According to former Republican President George W. Bush, who tried, but failed, to pass immigration reform in his second term, “The reason to pass immigration reform is not to bolster a Republican party, it’s to fix a system that’s broken,” while adding that he felt the bill has a chance to pass the House. Speaker of the House John Boehner has expressed concern over the size of the bill, indicating the House may break up the Senate bill into separate parts and review them on a smaller scale. However, many of Boehner’s and other Republicans’ concerns center on the Border Security section of the bill, and not on the sections expanding the options for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas.
How the DOMA ruling affects US immigration policy:
After the DOMA ruling, President Obama directed departments of the US federal government to uphold the Court’s decision and allow same-sex legally married couples to receive certain federal benefits. This was echoed in a statement from Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, directing USCIS to “review immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of a same-sex spouse in the same manner as those filed on behalf on an opposite-sex spouse.” This means that a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident who is married to a same-sex foreign national can sponsor their spouse for a family-based visa. This applies even if the couple does not live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, as long as they were married in a state that does. The final determination of the sponsorship application will be made using the applicable immigration law, meaning that the application will not be automatically denied as a result of the same-sex marriage, as it would have been under previous law.
Attorney Ryan Korsunsky of Wites Law Firm explained that “the effects of the DOMA ruling will be realized in numerous federal arenas, though its effect on immigration policy should not be understated. Hopefully the Senate bill will have a similar impact on the ability of foreign nationals to become permanent residents.” Although the future of the Senate bill remains unknown, there is reason to be optimistic about immigration reform as a whole. Given the support the bill received from Senate Republicans, and the quick action taken by DHS to modify USCIS policy on same-sex marriages, the Unites States may soon be opening up hundreds of thousands of new opportunities for immigrants.
Wites Law Firm is a law firm based in Lighthouse Point, Florida, that represents individuals and their families in immigration matters, personal injury and wrong death cases, investment loss disputes, and class actions.