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Immigration bill raises hopes of North Coast undocumented immigrants


Details of the wide-ranging immigration bill emerged from the nation's capital Tuesday, fueling hopes among some North Coast immigrants that it would finally give them a path to live in the United States legally.

The bill, crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators known as the Gang of Eight, would create a new "legal status" -- Registered Provisional Immigrant, or RPI -- for many of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But this status -- as well as the possibility of later earning legal permanent residency and U.S. citizenship -- would be contingent on the country meeting a number of "border security triggers."

To meet that goal, the federal government would spend up to $7 billion for border security measures, including beefed up border patrols, unmanned surveillance drones, new communications systems and increased border fencing.

The bill would also require all businesses to use the E-Verify employment verification system within five years, create a new guest-worker program for low-skilled workers and increase the number of work visas for high-skilled workers, people with advanced degrees and entrepreneurs.

But the prospect that millions would be lifted out of illegal status was the portion of the bill welcomed by many local undocumented immigrants. Under the new RPI status, immigrants could work for any employer and travel outside the United States.

"I hope they pass it this time," said one undocumented immigrant, who asked that his name not be used for fear that it would jeopardize his job. "I would feel freer in this country and I'd be able to go back to visit my family."

The immigrant, who lives in Petaluma and works as a certified nursing assistant, said he came to the United States in 2002 with his wife looking for work and a better life.

Six months after he crossed the border, his father died. He could not return to help bury him for fear of risking another dangerous border crossing coming back.

Jesus Atilano, an undocumented immigrant who was recently granted a temporary reprieve from deportation under the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, said the immigration bill would give him a clear path to being "legal."

Atilano, who was illegally brought to the country by his parents when he was a year old, said he longs to see his great-great-grandmother, who cared for him as an infant.

"Eventually I'll be legal," Atilano said. "I'll be able to travel and visit Mexico and see my great-grandmother ... she was there for me when my parents were broke. I kind of want to meet her."

Under the proposed immigration bill, undocumented immigrants would qualify for RPI status if they entered the United State prior to Dec. 31, 2011 and have lived in the country continuously since then.

RPI applicants would be required to pay a $500 fine, assessed taxes and all application fees. They would not be eligible if they were convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, voted unlawfully, or are inadmissable for reasons of national security or public health.

Also, the spouses and children of immigrants in RPI status could be petitioned for as "derivatives" of the applicant, though they must be in the United States at the time they are petitioned.

One key provision would grant relief to some immigrants who were in the country before Dec. 31, 2011 and later deported. These people can apply to re-enter the United States in RPI status if they are the spouse or parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.

RPI status lasts six years and can be renewed if the immigrant does not commit any act that would make him or her ineligible. The immigrant must pay another $500 fine with the renewal of RPI status.

Other provisions include:

After 10 years of RPI status, immigrants could apply to become legal permanent residents and receive their green cards.

Young undocumented immigrants who are eligible for the DREAM Act and those who qualify for a new Agricultural Program could apply for green cards after five years.

RPI immigrants must pay a $1,000 penalty fee to receive their green cards.

Immigrants granted RPI status would not be eligible for federal public benefits.

According to the bill, the number of employment visas for skilled workers, professionals and other professionals would increase to 40 percent. The bill also creates a "start-up visa" for immigrant entrepreneurs who seek to come to the United States to start up their own companies and hire Americans.

It also raises the cap on H-1B visas from the current 65,000 to 110,000 a year. The current allowance for 20,000 visas aimed at immigrants with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics obtained in U.S. schools is raised by 5,000.

Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has not taken an official position on the proposed bill. In general, he said, chamber members "are concerned about finding talented workers, workers with the skills that will help their businesses succeed."

Coe said the chamber would like any immigration bill to include provisions that increase the pool of skilled workers.

Steve Dutton, president and co-owner of Dutton Ranch, said the language on agricultural workers in the outline of the bill was "vague" and that he was "happy something is getting done."

"The current system hasn't worked for years," he said.

Richard Coshnear, a local immigration attorney and immigrant rights advocate, said there were many "positive" provisions in the proposed immigration bill. He said the proposed guest worker, unlike the post-World War II Bracero Program, would include labor protections.

But Coshnear said he would like to see a shorter wait period for a green card than the proposed 10 years.