Zee Media Bureau
Washington: Adding to the hopes of millions of illegal immigrants in US, the significant immigration bill inched closer to reality when a Senate panel approved it on Tuesday evening.
The legislation which has been one of the top priorities of President Barack Obama, paves way to citizenship for 11.5 million immigrants, including 260, 000 Indians in America, and is the biggest immigration policy overhaul in a generation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on the fifth day of its deliberations that included 300 amendments to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill - Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act - passed it by 13-5 votes.
The bill passed through the key Senate committee only after lawmakers reached a deal on H-1B visa expansion plan.
The bill is now slated to be taken up for debate in the full Senate next month, where it would require 60 votes to pass the 100-seat Senate.
The centerpiece provision of the legislation allows the millions of people living in the US illegally to obtain "registered provisional immigrant status" six months after enactment if certain conditions are also met.
Applicants must have arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, and maintained continuous physical presence, must not have a felony conviction of more than two misdemeanors on their record, and pay a $500 fine.
The registered provisional immigrant status lasts six years and is renewable for another $500. After a decade, though, individuals could seek a green card and lawful permanent resident status if they are up to date on their taxes and pay a $1,000 fine and meet other conditions.
Individuals brought to the country as youths would be able to apply for green cards in five years.
Hailing the approval, Obama said in a statement that the measure is "largely consistent with the principles of common-sense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system."
"I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements," Obama said in a statement.
The legislation creates a new program for low-skilled foreign labor and would permit highly skilled workers into the country at far higher levels than is currently the case.
At the same time, it requires the government to take costly new steps to guard against future illegal immigration.
In the hours leading to a final vote, the Senate panel agreed to a last-minute compromise covering an increase in the visa program for high-tech workers, a deal that brought Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah over to the ranks of supporters.
Under the compromise, the number of highly skilled workers admitted to the country would rise from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further increase to 180,000, depending in part on unemployment levels.
Firms where foreign labor accounts for at least 15 percent of the skilled work force would be subjected to tighter conditions than companies less dependent on H-IB visa holders.
The issue of same-sex spouses hovered in the background from the start, and as the committee neared the end of its work, officials said Leahy had been informed that both the White House and Senate Democrats hoped he would not risk the destruction of months of painstaking work by putting the issue to a vote.
With Agency Inputs