Today the Senate passed S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” with a strong bipartisan vote, 68-32. As amended in the Judiciary Committee and on the floor of the Senate, the bill is a strategic overhaul of our nation’s immigration laws.
Here are the top five things the Senate immigration reform bill accomplishes:
1. Record-breaking build up at the border
The Senate immigration reform bill makes unprecedented investments in border security, including raising the number of Border Patrol agents from just more than 21,000 to 38,405; building an additional 350 miles of fencing (to bring the total miles of fencing to 700); and deploying a litany of specific technology resources in the various sectors of the southern border. Groups like the Campaign for an Accountable, Moral, and Balanced Immigration Overhaul, or CAMBIO, have rightly pointed out that the bill effectively “militarizes the border.”
But this amendment blocked other efforts that would have implemented a more subjective metric—achieving a “90 percent effectiveness rate” of either deterring or detaining anyone without status who attempts to cross into the country across the southern border—as a trigger for legalization. That metric could have been subject to manipulation by a future administration by reallocating resources in a way that would reduce the effectiveness rate. Or, since it is an untested metric, it might have proven an impossible goal to achieve regardless of the commitment and resources. Instead, the legislation’s requirements to strengthen the border can be objectively measured and attained—either you have hired the Border Patrol agents, built the fence, and deployed the technology, or you have not. And the bill itself appropriates more than $40 billion to ensure that the objectives are met and not subject to the whims of a future Congress.
2. An achievable path to citizenship
The provisions creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States remain unaltered from those that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Neither the border security amendment nor any other amendment changed the requirements or fees to apply for registered provisional immigrant, or RPI, status (temporary legal status); to renew that status; or to adjust to permanent residency (a green card).
Anyone without status who entered the United States prior to December 31, 2011, and is not ineligible due to criminal or other restrictions, can apply for a temporary RPI status. Obtaining this status requires that an immigrant pay a $500 fine and application fees, pass a background check, and submit biometric identification data. This status is good for six years, at which time it can be renewed, with an additional $500 fine and another background check, and requires the immigrant to show that he or she has either been working throughout their time in RPI status, or can demonstrate resources of at least 100 percent of the federal poverty line. After 10 years in RPI status, an immigrant can apply for legal permanent resident, or LPR, status by paying an additional $1,000 fine and application fees, passing additional background checks, and by showing that he or she has either worked throughout their time in RPI status, or can demonstrate resources equal to 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Finally, three years after achieving LPR status, the individual can apply for citizenship.
Based on our calculations, if we assume that 500,000 people have entered the country without status after the bill’s cut-off date of December 31, 2011, and further assume that 15 percent will be ineligible to apply because they lack the necessary funds or have other restrictions, we estimate that more than 9 million people will be eligible for RPI status.
3. The most generous DREAM Act ever
The Senate immigration reform bill allows anyone who entered the country before the age of 16, who has completed high school and some college or military service, and who has been in RPI status for at least five years to apply for permanent residence and citizenship. Unlike previous versions of the DREAM Act, S. 744 contains no age cap, which means that even DREAMers who have been waiting for more than a decade and are now in their 30s or older can still qualify. According to the Migration Policy Institute, at least 2.1 million DREAMers may be eligible for this status.
4. Unprecedented family reunification
The Senate immigration reform bill ensures that the 4.4 million people who have been approved for a green card—but have been waiting for years, even decades, to come to the United States because of the long backlogs in the system—can finally reunite with their family members. Section 2302 of the bill clears out this long backlog over a period of nine years by dividing up the number of people waiting each year and granting that many additional visas each year. In addition, Section 2101 allows even those people that have been deported for noncriminal reasons—but who are the parent, spouse, or child of a citizen or green card holder, or are a DREAMer—to apply for RPI status from abroad, ensuring that these families are not kept apart.
5. Economic growth
Perhaps most importantly, the Senate immigration reform bill is an economic boost to the nation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which provides the official accounting or scoring of legislation, found that S. 744 would reduce the deficit by $197 billion in the first decade, and by an additional $700 billion in the second decade—not counting the additional border security spending added on the Senate floor. The CBO does not even take into account the indirect economic effects of the bill. When these ripple effects are considered, research by the Center for American Progress has found that immigration reform, which includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, would increase the earnings of all American workers by $470 billion over a decade, increase tax revenue by $109 billion over a decade, and create on average an additional 121,000 jobs per year. The research also concludes that immigration reform will provide a significant boost to the solvency of the Social Security system: Over the next three-and-a-half decades, the very time when Social Security will be under the biggest strain from the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, legalized immigrants will add a net of more than $606 billion to the system, enabling support of 2.4 million American retirees.
The immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, with its unprecedented border resources and strong economic imperatives, lays bare the last remaining arguments by those opposing reform. It’s nearly impossible to argue that almost doubling the Border Patrol, doubling the miles of fencing completed, and implementing unprecedented levels of technology indicates the United States is not serious about border security. And with the Congressional Budget Office scoring of the bill, it is clear that reform has powerful economic benefits.
Now that the Senate has spoken, it is up to the House to act to ensure that we restore the rule of law while seizing the economic potential of putting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States on a true path to citizenship.