U.S. immigration bill expected to emphasize work skills

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WASHINGTON -- The sweeping immigration bill that a bipartisan group of senators is preparing will include a major new merit-based program for foreigners to become permanent legal residents based on their work skills, including both high-skilled and blue-collar workers, according to people familiar with a draft of the legislation.

Over time the program, just one piece of the bill, would open up many new opportunities for foreigners to settle in the United States based on their skills, a shift from the focus on family ties that is the main foundation of the current immigration system.

But the bill will also include a host of measures to eliminate, over 10 years, a backlog of 4.7 million immigrants who have applied to live here legally and have been languishing in the system, waiting for permanent resident visas known as green cards. As a result, during the next decade, millions of immigrants who have been waiting patiently for legal documents would be united with their family members here.

The bill, an intricate combination of many interlocking parts, also provides a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. Under the plan, those immigrants would wait at least 13 years before they could apply to become citizens.

The eight senators who are drafting the legislation, including Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., this week said they had reached broad agreement on its major pieces and hoped to present it early next week. Mr. Schumer said Thursday that all issues among the senators had been resolved. "All that's left is the drafting," he said.

At the crux of the legislation is an effort to bridge the gap between Democrats, who strongly support and are seeking to protect family immigration, and Republicans, who are eager to move immigration toward a system based on work skills that foreigners bring to the United States.

The senators are under pressure to move quickly to introduce the bill. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday.

One major goal of the bill is to put aliens who have been living in the country illegally at "the back of the line" behind those who made every effort to follow the rules, so no one here illegally would become legal residents or citizens until those already in the system have the chance to do so.

Also, at the insistence of Republicans -- particularly Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another member of the bipartisan group -- the bill avoids giving those immigrants a separate pathway to citizenship. Under the proposal, no new green cards would be created in the future exclusively for them. Instead, in a novel compromise worked out in hard-fought negotiations, aliens who had been here illegally would gain a provisional legal status in which they would remain for at least 10 years. They could work legally and travel, but they would not become permanent residents.

During the first decade, the aim is to clear backlogs. Then, formerly illegal immigrants could apply for merit-based green cards, along with many other foreigners applying legally. After three years with a green card, the formerly illegal immigrants would be eligible to apply to become U.S. citizens.

Some Senate staff members stressed that the bill's final draft is not complete, and that many details could change, although not the broad outlines and goals.

At the end of 10 years, the bill would create a program offering 138,000 merit-based visas each year to foreigners based on their work skills, but also on other considerations including family ties.

Green cards would be offered to workers in three categories: high-skilled foreigners in technology and science, employees with a middle-range of white-collar skills and low-wage workers. Farmworkers are not included, as they would come under a separate program.



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