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Q&A on Senate Immigration Bill

The New York times reported that on Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on a sweeping bill to overhaul the immigration system. The 844-page bill includes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, new border security measures, a mandatory nationwide system to verify the legal status of newly hired workers, two new guest worker programs and a host of changes to the legal immigration system.

The sponsors said they hoped to win passage of the bill in the Senate by early June.

Readers were invited to send in questions for Julia Preston, the national immigration correspondent for The New York Times, and her responses follow. Some questions were edited for publication.

Q: Your news analysis, on April 17, said that “the bill would reduce the categories of family members eligible for green cards, eliminating siblings of United States citizens.” I am a United States citizen, and I wasn’t aware that I can currently get a green card for my sibling who is a foreigner. Could you please tell me more? — Former Soviet

A: Under the current system, the distribution of visas each year to foreigners applying to become legal permanent residents — in other words, to receive a green card — is done through a list of preferences. For foreigners applying for green cards based on their family ties (as opposed to their work skills), the fourth visa preference is for brothers and sisters of adult United States citizens. About 65,000 visas are available each year for those siblings.

The Senate bill would eliminate that sibling preference 18 months after the law takes effect. The senators have said that applications already submitted under that preference will be completed; no one with a valid application who is waiting in line will be left out.

The backlogs in that category are huge. The longest wait is for siblings from the Philippines. Visas are being issued this month to Filipino siblings who applied in July 1989.

Q: If the bill is passed in the Senate, does it have to pass the House next? If so, will the bill become law in more than a year, in your opinion? — Former Soviet

A: The Senate next week will consider the bill written by a bipartisan group of eight senators. Those senators have said they hope for a vote by late May or early June. The House of Representatives will consider separate legislation. A bipartisan group in the House has been working in closed-door negotiations on a comprehensive immigration bill, which appears to have many of the same elements as the Senate bill. The House bill has not been introduced yet.

It is too soon to predict when or even if either bill would pass or become law. We are at the beginning of a far-ranging, fast-paced and very lively debate in Congress on these proposals.

Q: This bill claims those who apply will not receive any federal benefits, although they will be allowed to stay, work and pay taxes. This doesn’t make sense to me, as their children will be allowed to go to school and they will still be able to receive medical care at the emergency medical outlets. Who pays for this if not the taxpayers? — granddad1

A: Under the Senate bill, immigrants who have been in the United States without legal status would be able to apply for registered provisional immigrant status, which they could obtain starting six months after the law is enacted, if they meet the requirements and if border security conditions are met. Those immigrants will be allowed to work — paying whatever taxes they owe — and to travel.

Immigrants with provisional status would not be eligible for any federal benefits available to low-income people. For example, they would not be eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, low-income assistance in the prescription drug program or federal housing aid.

The children of immigrants with provisional status, and children with that status, would be allowed to attend public schools through high school. This is not related to the Senate bill. The Supreme Court determined in a 1982 decision that immigrant children could attend school regardless of their status. Also, hospital emergency rooms are required by current law to provide care to anyone seeking it.

A goal of the Senate bill is to bring more than 11 million illegal immigrants into the system, requiring them to pay any back taxes they owe (many of these immigrants already pay taxes) as well as their future taxes. Provisional immigrants who fail to pay their taxes would not be eligible to become citizens. So, the immigrants would be among the taxpayers paying for the services.

Q: Under present law any children of these illegal immigrants will be citizens if born in the United States, and they would be eligible for federal benefits. That seems to preclude the idea that no federal benefits would go to the immigrants under this bill. — granddad1

A: According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, at least 4.5 million children who are United States citizens have at least one parent who is an immigrant here illegally. The immigration status of the parents does not change the fact that these children are Americans. They are eligible, like any other children who are citizens, for state and federal benefits and financial assistance for education, if they meet the requirements.

Q: What confirmation can be given that there will not be loopholes for those who have criminal records to gain legal status anyway? — icgreed

A: Under the Senate bill, immigrants living in this country illegally would not be eligible for provisional status if they have been convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors or a serious crime in another country; if they have voted illegally; or if they were found to present a national security risk. The Senate proposal does not change the restrictions that now exist in the law or open any new loopholes.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal law enforcement agencies have revamped their systems for checking the backgrounds of foreigners applying for visas and other immigration benefits. Criminal and national security databases maintained by the F.B.I. have been linked to Homeland Security’s immigration records. Illegal immigrants applying for registered provisional status under the bill will have to give fingerprints, photographs and biographical information that would be run through the databases.

A recent dress rehearsal, on a smaller scale, came last year when the Obama administration offered deportation deferrals to young people here illegally who came when they were children. Since August, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of that program, has processed more than 488,000 applications, including taking fingerprints from more than 450,000 immigrants. So far, at least, there have been few reports of fraud. Immigration lawyers have reported that many young people who had criminal records decided not to apply for deferrals.

However, under the Senate bill as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants could be eligible for provisional status. During the debate in the Senate, federal officials will no doubt face questions about what measures they are planning to stop fraud.

Q: How can we confirm which illegal migrants have been here for years or have just arrived? Will just their sworn statement suffice? How do we confirm the validity of their statements about when they arrived? — icgreed

A: To qualify for registered provisional status, illegal immigrants will have to show they were living in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, and have been here continuously since then. It will not be enough for those immigrants to state how long they have been here. They will have to provide documents to prove it, such as tax records, paychecks, utility bills, leases, school records or purchase receipts.

Q: How much will this process cost the American taxpayer during a time that we are running record deficits? — icgreed

A: There has not yet been any estimate of the cost of the Senate bill from the Congressional Budget Office, considered the most reliable auditor of new laws by Congress. The senators who wrote the bill have estimated the spending at about $17 billion over 10 years. Almost all of that money would be for border security, including up to $5 billion for new surveillance technology and additional border agents; $1.5 billion for new border fencing; and money to add 3,500 customs agents.

The bill includes a provision authorizing Homeland Security officials to charge fees “sufficient to recover all costs” of registering the immigrants. In order to qualify for provisional status, immigrants will have to pay a $500 penalty as well as any back taxes, and they will have to pay additional fees and all taxes they owe during a period of at least 10 years during which they would remain with that status. As a result, the sponsors of the bill say that it will generate significant federal revenues.

That issue will be the subject of much debate in coming weeks.


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