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By Richard Cowan
(Reuters) - A bipartisan group of eight senators on Tuesday unveiled an outline of legislation to revamp U.S. immigration policy for the first time since 1986.
The proposal has three overriding goals: to create a path to legal status and ultimately citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants; to secure U.S. borders against illegal entry; and to make it easier for industry, particularly high-tech industry and agriculture, to hire workers from abroad when needed.
The proposal faces a long, difficult road and scores of amendments in the U.S. Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives.
President Barack Obama has made immigration reform one of his top priorities for 2013. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to move quickly on the proposal, scheduling hearings for Friday and Monday before opening the measure up for debate and amendment by the panel, which is controlled by Democrats.
Senate Democratic leaders hope to debate and pass the legislation in the full Senate in May. That could set the stage for the House also considering a bill.
Below are major provisions of the complex Senate legislation:
* "High-risk" sections of the southern U.S. border with Mexico will be targeted for increased security. Washington would set a goal of catching or turning back 90 percent of illegal entries. A high-risk area is defined as one where apprehensions top 30,000 a year.
* $3 billion in new funds would be provided to improve border surveillance and detection, add law enforcement officers and operate aerial surveillance.
* Another $1.5 billion in new funds would be used to improve border fencing.
* If the 90 percent effectiveness rate has not been reached during the first five years after enactment of the law, a new border commission would be created. It would be staffed by the four border-state governors or their appointees and experts appointed by bipartisan leaders of Congress.
* The commission would recommend ways to improve security. Washington would provide another $2 billion to carry out the recommendations.
LEGALIZATION OF UNDOCUMENTED RESIDENTS
* Foreigners living in the United States illegally could apply to adjust their status to "registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status" within 180 days after enactment, provided the secretary of Homeland Security submits to Congress a strategy for securing U.S. borders.
* Only those who arrived in the United States before December 31, 2011 could apply and they would have to pay a $500 fee and back taxes. Those convicted of felonies or three or more misdemeanours would not be eligible.
* Immigrants who win RPI status could work for any employer and would be allowed to travel outside the United States.
* RPI status would last for six years and can be renewed.
* After 10 years, those with RPI status can adjust to a permanent resident status if they are working regularly and speak English. Permanent residents are among those who under current law may apply for citizenship.
* Two groups would be put on a faster track to permanent resident status: children brought into the United States illegally and certain farm workers. They could get "green cards" in five years. The children would be eligible for citizenship immediately after getting green cards.
* About 40 percent of employment-based visas would be allocated to professionals with advanced degrees to work in the United States in the sciences, arts and other professions, including certain people with foreign medical degrees. Those holding graduate degrees in engineering, mathematics, science and technology from U.S. universities also would be included.
* Employment visas for skilled workers and certain professionals would be increased to 40 percent of the total. And a new visa would be created for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start their own companies in the United States.
* The "V visa" would be expanded to help unify families by allowing foreign relatives to live in the United States and for certain other family members to visit the United States for up to 60 days per year.
* Immigrant visas for siblings of U.S. citizens would be repealed 18 months after the date of enactment.
* A backlog for family and employment-based immigrants would be eliminated.
* A merit-based visa would be created the fifth year after enactment and would award points to individuals based on education, employment, length of residence in the United States and other considerations. There would be 120,000 such visas available annually, with the number rising by 5 percent per year if demand exceeds supply and the U.S. jobless rate is below 8.5 percent. It would be capped at 250,000 visas.
* Employers would have to use an "E-Verify" system to ensure that they are hiring legal workers. It would be phased in over a five-year period.
* The cap on H-1B temporary visas for high-skilled workers would be raised to 110,000 from a current base limit of 65,000. In future years the cap could rise to as high as 180,000.
* A new "W-Visa" for low-skilled workers would be created and spouses and minor children of those workers would be allowed to accompany them to the United States. The number of visas would be capped for the first four years at 20,000, 35,000, 55,000 and 75,000 respectively.
* A new government bureau would determine changes to limits on such visas and devise methods for determining domestic labour shortages in regions.
* Wages for low-skilled immigrant workers would be dictated by either the wage paid to other employees with similar experience or based on a prevailing wage level for occupations in geographic regions, whichever is higher.
* Current undocumented farm workers would be able to win legal status if they have made a "substantial prior commitment" to farm work in the United States. A new agricultural guest worker visa program would be created to ensure an adequate workforce.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)