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Let the debate begin

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A complex proposal by a group of senators to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws restructures the visa system to allow more guest workers including creating a new visa that appears to address agricultural interests and particularly the needs of north country dairy farmers.

National attention is focused on revisions that would establish a lengthy 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants here now. Instead of amnesty, those who arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible for provisional legal status that would allow them to live and work here legally as well as travel outside the country until they gain citizenship.

However, they could not have a serious criminal record (one felony or three or more misdemeanors) and would have to pay about $2,000 in fines and hundreds of dollars more in other fees. People brought here illegally as children would have a shorter wait of only five years to become eligible for citizenship.

The proposed reforms would gradually shift the visa system from one that favors family members of immigrants who are already here to a merit-based system that considers skills, current employment, education and length of time in the country.

Employers will be required to electronically verify the legal status of new hires through an E-verify system to be phased in over five years.

The allocation of H-1B visas for high-skilled workers sought by technology companies would increase from 65,000 to 110,000. The plan also sets up a new class of “W” visas for farmworkers and low-wage laborers to meet employer needs to fill jobs they cannot find American workers to do.

The number of low-skilled workers filling jobs as housecleaners, hospitality workers and landscapers would start out at 20,000 a year and gradually rise to 75,000 in four years.

A second new visa would replace the current H-2A visa that farmers depend on for agricultural workers to harvest their crops. Just 65,000 of the visas were issued last year, but the proposed reform would allow it to rise to 112,000 the first year with increases over the next five years but never more than 337,000 in a three-year period.

But, the Wall Street Journal reported, the visas would also be extended to dairy farmers as well. To meet agricultural needs, the three-year visas would allow workers to remain year-round and move to other agricultural employers. Dairy farmers can’t use the current visa system.

The price tag on the bill, however, will be a major obstacle in the path of reform. The bipartisan plan would spend $4.5 billion to secure the Southwest border with more Border Patrol agents, increased use of drones and additional fencing to reduce illegal border crossings by 90 percent. Security measures would have to be in place before illegal immigrants could apply for citizenship.

Add to that objections to the citizenship path that opponents see as another amnesty for illegal aliens and the fear of displacing American workers with more low-wage immigrants that could halt the momentum for reform.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearings Friday in what will be a contentious process, but the bill provides a path forward and an opportunity for constructive debate on long overdue meaningful immigration reform.

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