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US Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, speaks to the media about the Senate's immigration reform bill at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 16, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Already America's most popular immigrant gateway, California could be reshaped by a comprehensive immigration bill that eight U.S. senators introduced Tuesday after months of negotiations.

The bill offers an arduous 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants illegally in the country but also shifts the legal immigration system to welcome more people based on their work skills, especially the most educated.

And it would pump billions of dollars into securing the U.S.-Mexico border to curtail illegal immigration.

"Silicon Valley, in terms of tech, comes out pretty good from this proposal," said Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. "If you look at the grand scheme of things, it also definitely benefits undocumented immigrants. They're not going to get deported."

But the "ones who are most hurt," said Hing, are many average immigrants who will lose the chance to sponsor their brothers, sisters and other relatives to join them in the United States.

The bipartisan group of senators postponed their announcement of the bill Tuesday in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, but a 17-page summary obtained by the Bay Area News Group details how it would work.

In a move away from America's family-focused immigration system, it would create a new "Merit Visa" later this decade that would rank prospective permanent residents, including those now here illegally, using a points system based on their education, employment and length of U.S. residence. About 120,000 of the new visas will be available in the first year of the merit-based program, and up to 250,000 annually if the economy improves.


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First, however, the measure aims at clearing an existing backlog of more than 4.5 million immigrants waiting for green cards to move here permanently, most to join relatives who have sponsored them.

And it gives a 10-year "registered provisional immigrant" status to those here illegally, as long as they have lived here since at least Dec. 2011, have not committed serious crimes and pay $2,000 in fees over time, including $500 up front.

They will be able to work and live in the United States for a decade, but not get government benefits, and eventually can seek citizenship if they pay back taxes, learn English and qualify for an existing family or work visa.

Many Bay Area immigrant advocacy groups saw the compromise as a step forward, but had concerns about some of the penalties. They were also concerned by a provision that says legalization cannot happen until the federal government certifies that it has control over the border.

"We are concerned that this path is very long," said Jazmin Segura, of the San Jose-based Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network. "People have lived in the country for many years, some for decades. To have them wait another 10 years is a really long time."

A quicker path to citizenship would be offered to young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and to agricultural workers.

"That's fantastic," said Lorena Melgarejo, of the San Francisco Organizing Project, but she was worried by how many people would get left out because of fines, misdemeanor charges, the 2011 cutoff date and the border security trigger that has to be met.

In the coming weeks, Bay Area immigrant organizations are "going to survey folks in the churches we work with, the schools we work with," to see what they think, Melgarejo said.

The bill also would expand temporary visa programs for guest workers in both high-wage and low-wage jobs. It would raise the annual cap for 3-year H-1B visas, already heavily used to recruit foreign computer programmers and other Silicon Valley tech workers, from 85,000 to as many as 180,000.

Adding thousands more visas for highly skilled workers, graduate students and entrepreneuers pleased tech business advocate Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

"We think it's a huge step forward in the right direction," Guardino said.

He welcomed the expansion of temporary H-1B visas, but even more important, he said, is that the bill provides more skills-based green cards, which allow immigrants to stay here permanently and obtain U.S.citizenship.

"Green cards are a long-term strategy" encouraging "much more ownership in our country than a temporary worker would," he said.

Some engineers critical of the H-1B program for creating unfair competition with U.S. workers were pleased that the bill, while adding temporary visas, bans some companies from gobbling up too many of them.

"It's better than expected," said Saratoga computer consultant Brian Berg, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. "Even though the program is being expanded, the fact that outsourcers are being partly left out of this process is good news."

By outsourcers, Berg means the companies -- most of them based in India -- that rely on H-1B workers for the majority of their workforce. Companies will be banned from hiring more than 75 percent of their workforce from abroad, and will now have to pay a $10,000 fee for each additional foreign worker they hire if more than half of their workforce is here on temporary visas.

But another longtime H-1B program skeptic, UC Davis computer science professor Norm Matloff, said merely punishing the Indian firms was "shameful scapegoating" since mainstream Silicon Valley firms are just as guilty of using the H-1B visa to hire people below market wages.

The bill would also add a new W visa for lower-skilled guest workers -- 20,000 in the first year, with the numbers later expanding or contracting based on economic measurements.

The bill would eliminate today's "diversity visa," which is awarded randomly to about 50,000 people each year from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

That will cut off immigration from many African countries, said Richmond resident Charles Jackson of the African Advocacy Network. Jackson was able to come from Liberia to the Bay Area on a Stanford scholarship, but most Africans are not so lucky and do not have the work or family connections to get to the United States on work or student visas.

"How many Africans are there here on H-1B? It's hard," Jackson said. Cutting off the visa lottery means many "people are not going to be able to come here."

He was also troubled that, after the existing backlog of family visas is cleared, the bill would end visas for the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, as well as married sons and daughters over the age of 30.

"The proposal to get rid of the sibling category, which has been on the books since 1952, that's going to be very disappointing," Hing said. "It's disappointing for regular immigrants. The vast majority of people who immigrate today come on the family categories."

The so-called "Gang of Eight" senators -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- have negotiated the bill in secret for months. They are Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, while not part of the group, helped broker its agricultural provision after months-long negotiations between the farm industry and unions.

The first hearing on the bill is expected to happen on Friday, followed by another one on Monday.