House Democrats have released their own immigration bill. Here’s what it does.

October 2, 2013

The federal government has shut down and Congress can't even agree on basic measures to fund the government. But House Democrats are trying to urge everyone not to forget about immigration reform.


Latino farm workers at a farm on Chandler Mountain in Steele, Ala., make $8 an hour. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

You remember immigration reform, right? That big, contentious debate that was consuming all of official Washington just a few short months ago?

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and several other Democrats unveiled their own bill to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. The legislation is very similar to the bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate back in June — with one big exception: The House Democrats' bill would not include billions of dollars requiring 700 miles of new border fence, the way the Senate bill did. Instead, the House bill would set specific goals for border enforcement.

The House Democrats' bill has little chance of passing as is. Elise Foley of the Huffington Post reports that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has already ruled out putting it on the calendar. (Another bipartisan group in the House is struggling to come up with its own bill.)

But the bill is an attempt to keep the topic from vanishing altogether. So here's a breakdown of what the House Democrats' immigration bill actually does — and how it differs from the Senate version:

1) The House Democrats' border-security measures would be more goal-oriented. Thanks to a last-minute amendment, the final version of the Senate immigration bill would spend $30 billion to double the number of federal border agents, complete 700 miles of fencing, and expand radar and aerial drone surveillance along the border.

The House Democrats' bill takes a different approach, adopting a plan approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in late July. That measure would require the Department of Homeland Security to create a detailed plan leading to the apprehension of 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within 33 months and across the U.S.-Mexico border in five years. The measure doesn't specify a path toward that goal, but any plan would have to be reviewed by Congress before money started flowing.

2) Both bills would grant legal status to around 7.7 million of the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States. The CBO estimated that, under the Senate bill, 6.3 million people would receive “registered provisional immigrant" status, which requires paying a $1,000 fine and other fees. These immigrants could stay and work in the United States, but wouldn't receive federal benefits. After 10 years, they could apply to become permanent residents.

An additional 1.4 million currently unauthorized farm workers (and their families) could apply for special "blue cards" after paying fees. This would enable them to stay and keep working in the United States, with the option of applying for residency after five years.

According to an earlier analysis of the Senate bill, that would still leave roughly 5.5 million unauthorized immigrants left in the country five years from now (give or take a few million). These are mostly people who don't qualify for the amnesty provisions. This number would either shrink or keep growing very slowly in the years ahead, depending on how effective those various security measures proved to be.

3) Both bills would allow an additional 5 million legal immigrants into the United States in the next five years. That's over and above the 4.5 million legal immigrants who were already expected. The House bill, like the Senate bill, would revamp the system for legal residents and temporary workers. Here are some highlights from the CBO's analysis of similar legislation:

-- By 2018, an extra 700,000 immigrants would arrive legally through family-based visa programs. That's because the Senate bill would allow spouses and children of legal residents to apply for a green card in the near term, but would then slowly reduce the cap for family visas over time.

-- An additional 1.1 million immigrants would arrive through new employment-based programs. That's because the Senate bill would allow more high-skilled and highly educated workers to enter the United States without counting against the existing cap on visas.

-- An additional 2.5 million immigrants would come in through a "merit-based program" that awards visas based on a point system. This part of the Senate bill would try to cut through the current backlog of applications. Many of these new immigrants would be relatives of current legal residents.

-- Then there's an extra 900,000 temporary workers entering the country by 2018. This includes 100,000 extra high-skilled workers with H1-B visas and 300,000 extra low-skilled and farm workers under the W-visa program.

4) Both bills would tighten employer enforcement of illegal immigration. The House Democrats' bill, like the Senate version, would require employers to use a new version of E-Verify, an electronic system for determining the legal status of current and prospective employees. Non-citizens would have to show "work authorization cards" or Green Cards that include biometric data to prevent forgeries.

5) Both bills would include a number of smaller changes to the immigration system. That includes reforming the courts and detention process, making it harder for immigrants to attain legal status if they commit certain crimes (such as drunk driving or passport fraud), and streamlining the asylum program.

Further reading:

--Here's the full text of the House Democrats' bill.

--Elise Foley has some great reporting on the politics of the bill.

--Here’s how immigration would change under the Senate immigration bill.

--Border security is the key to immigration reform. So how do we measure it?

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