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Immigration reform: On the back burner, but not forgotten

At least 8 million people are waiting for paths to citizenship. (Source: MGN) At least 8 million people are waiting for paths to citizenship. (Source: MGN)
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(RNN) - After The House of Representatives' decision not to vote on immigration reform before the winter holidays, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to call for reform in 2014.

He linked the call to the central theme of his address, which was the economy, specifically providing opportunity for all Americans by creating jobs and filling them.

"Finally, if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system," Obama said.

"Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: when people come here to fulfill their dreams - to study, invent, and contribute to our culture - they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let's get immigration reform done this year."

It's an issue that has been in the talks for years, but only last year gained real traction with a comprehensive bill proposed by the Senate.

But getting the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House to agree on anything may be the hardest part of getting immigration reform passed.

The Senate's proposal is a result of the "Gang of 8" - a group of eight senators, four republicans and four democrats - appointed by Obama to come together and discuss immigration issues.

They set forth their proposals in January 2013, soon after Obama's second inauguration. Five months later in June, Senate Bill S.744 passed the Senate with bipartisan support and headed to the House.

That's where it stalled.

In November, House Speaker and Republican leader John Boehner told CNN that immigration reform was "absolutely not" dead, but that he refused to negotiate on the Senate's proposal.

Instead, he said, he was open to pursuing immigration reform in a series of smaller bills, as suggested by House Republicans. But as one of his aides told CNN, "he didn't make any specific announcement on timing."

In December, Congress convened after delaying a vote on the Senate's proposed bill.

The Senate's proposal

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, a massive 1,000+ page document, would provide more pathways to citizenship, make it easier for people already here to stay and streamline the visa process. It also provides funding to beef up border security with more personnel.

The main proposal would be the legalization of millions of Hispanic immigrants through three methods: The Dream Act, Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status and something called a "blue card," which mainly affects agricultural workers and allows people to live and work in the country legally.

But the paths to citizenship aren't fast and take at least five years for blue cards and 10 for RPIs, with the exception of the Dream Act, which only affects people who came to the country while under the age of 16 and meet certain other requirements.

These people would be allowed to get driver's licenses, social security numbers, join the armed forces, go to school and pay taxes - but they would not be allowed to vote or take government assistance.

The bill would also expand the agricultural worker program and force employers to check worker status using the E-Verify system. Workers would be subject to taxes and safety laws and regulations, and would be allowed to transition to blue card status based on eligibility.

But Hispanic immigrants aren't the only group the bill targets. It would also implement a merit-based point system for potential resident applicants, increase the number of visas that can be applied for each year and streamline the entire process, opening doors to those who come to the country to study and wish to stay.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would increase the country's population over a 10-year period by 10.4 million people and save an estimated $197 billion, along with placing at least 8 million people into legal residency.

The waiting game

Meanwhile, millions wait for an answer as Congress debates the issue.

In October 2013, a massive showdown between the Senate and the House led to the shutdown of the federal government for two weeks, which resulted in millions going without work – and pay – while Congress played the preverbal game of chicken.

Immigration reform, which was scheduled to be voted on, fell by the wayside.

But since both sides managed to pass a 2014 budget, it could break some congressional gridlock.

It's an easing that Obama may be taking advantage of, hoping to get immigration reform done before he and his allies in Congress become lame ducks.

If he's lucky immigration reform will pass before mid-term elections, when a possible upheaval by less-than-satisfied voters, who had a 13 percent approval rating of Congress on Jan. 14 according to Gallup, shakes up the status quo.

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