On April 17, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators unveiled an immigration reform bill for consideration in the Senate. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744) would generally overhaul current immigration laws addressing border security, immigration status checks, and the visa system. In addition, the bill would provide an expedited path to citizenship for undocumented students and expand upon earlier versions of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
The so-called “Gang of Eight” attempted to craft a bill that would appeal to both sides of the aisle. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), two of the group’s members, are hoping to ultimately secure floor votes in support of the bill from a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in the chamber.
On May 21, the measure was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislation faces tough opposition: Committee Republicans filed almost 200 amendments before the Senate Committee markup in May, some changes reflecting fundamental concerns with the bill, others being unrelated to immigration and inserted simply to delay progress. Meanwhile, the House is expected to attempt to introduce immigration legislation this year, but it remains unclear whether representatives will try to pass individual bills or a comprehensive package. No timetables have been set.
Senate Bill Details and Differences
Senate Bill S. 744 incorporates language that would provide certain undocumented immigrants a path to higher education and U.S. citizenship. NACUBO and many others in the higher education community have long supported the different iterations of the DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001. The current bill, if passed, would achieve the following:
- Remove the age cap for eligibility and repeal the current federal law that limits states’ options to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students.
- Take steps to streamline the green card process for those who graduate with an advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degree from a U.S. higher education institution.
- Exempt from the employment-based green card limit international students with advanced STEM degrees.
- Include other provisions that would recapture unused employment-based green cards from prior fiscal years to help eliminate the green card backlog.
Regarding nonimmigrant visas, the bill allows for revalidation of H-1B visas in the United States, rather than requiring highly skilled immigrant employees to return to their home countries just to apply again for the same visa. These provisions are likely to enhance recruitment and retention of highly skilled international students and employees.
Suggested Improvements to the Bill
The American Council on Education and several other higher education groups recently suggested a number of improvements to the legislation including:
- A request to reconsider incorporating into the new bill a provision from recent versions of the DREAM Act that would make DREAM students eligible for federal education loans and the work-study program. An amendment offered by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) to that effect was approved by the committee.
- With regard to STEM-degree graduates, a request to use the Department of Homeland Security’s STEM-Designated Degree Program list as the definition for STEM, because of concerns that the current definition of “STEM degrees” in the bill is too narrow.
- A call to reassess the fees set in the legislation, particularly the $500 STEM labor certification fee, and the $500 J-1 visa fee, which would create a disincentive for hosting international scholars.
Sponsors of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744) include Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).