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Originally published June 1, 2013 at 5:48 PM | Page modified June 1, 2013 at 6:20 PM

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Immigration changes would be felt strongly here

Here are some of the ways the Senate’s sweeping immigration bill could impact the lives of Washington state immigrants.

Seattle Times staff reporters

States with highest number of foreign-born residents

California: 10,042,540 New York: 4,215,040 Texas: 4,005,825 Florida: 3,595,772 New Jersey: 1,804,834 Illinois: 1,754,808 Massachusetts: 957,402 Georgia: 929,155 Arizona: 882,904 Virginia: 870,073 Washington: 854,227

2011 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

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Immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — represent one of every seven residents in Washington state.

Here are some of the ways the Senate’s sweeping immigration bill could impact their lives and determine who else could be allowed into the state and nation.

Unauthorized immigrants

Perhaps no provision is as politically charged as the one to move an estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. out of the shadows of the American economy.

Legalization is an integral part of the overhaul, and the piece likely to affect the greatest numbers, including an estimated 230,000 or more living in Washington state.

The provisions that ultimately could get people to citizenship form a complex 13-year path that is contingent on the Department of Homeland Security taking timely steps over 10 years to beef up security along the Southwest border.

To qualify for legal status, immigrants must have been living in the U.S. as of Dec. 31, 2011, and must pass a criminal-background check, among other provisions. They would be granted what’s being called registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status and would be eligible to apply for citizenship after 10 years.

There’s a considerably shorter path for an estimated 2 million young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as young children. They would be eligible to apply for legal permanent residency, or green cards, as well as citizenship after five years.

There’s also a provision to allow for the return of certain undocumented immigrants who have been deported.

— Lornet Turnbull

Agriculture

Perhaps no sector in the state would see as direct an impact as the $46 billion-a-year food and agricultural industry.

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of all farmworkers in the state are in the country illegally, picking and packing fruit and vegetables, and thinning orchards.

The bill would eliminate the current H-2A guest worker program, which growers have long complained is cumbersome.

This year growers will use the program to bring in some 5,000 workers from overseas.

In its place the bill would establish a whole new guest worker program to bolster the industry’s sagging labor force — with up to 112,333 visas available annually.

After three years, holders of these visas could renew them for another three, but they first would have to return home for three months.

“This guest worker program is going to save labor-intensive agriculture in Washington,” said Dan Fazio, who heads the Washington Farm Labor Association.

For those already working in agriculture, the bill would create 336,000 new blue cards granting the workers transitional legal status if they have worked at least 100 days in any two-year period. Advocates say the number of blue cards is insufficient to meet their needs.

To obtain full legal status, workers must remain in agriculture for at least five years.

— Lornet Turnbull

High-skilled workers

Saying too few Americans are pursuing jobs in computer and engineering fields, Microsoft and other high-tech companies long have lobbied for more H-1B visas, which allow foreign college graduates to work in the U.S. for up to six years.

The proposed legislation would enable them — and such employers as Amazon, Expedia, University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center — to tap into a much-bigger pool of foreign talent.

The legislation would increase the national cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 a year to a maximum of 180,000. An additional 25,000 workers with a U.S. master’s degree would be allowed in, 5,000 more than now. Employers would have to advertise the jobs online to Americans first.

For permanent visas — green cards — based on employment, the current annual cap of 140,000 would remain unchanged. But some people who compete for them currently would no longer need to do so under the proposed bill.

Instead, automatic green cards would be conferred to those deemed to possess “extraordinary ability” in such fields as the sciences, arts, education and business.

The bill also creates two types of entrepreneur visas, which can lead to green cards .

In addition, Congress would create up to 250,000 new merit-based permanent visas a year without requiring a sponsoring employer.

An unspecified number of additional merit visas for permanent residency would go to those who have been waiting to enter the U.S. for at least five years or have been an undocumented U.S. resident for at least 10 years, among other categories.

— Kyung M. Song

Low-skilled workers

Currently, there is virtually no legal way for lower-skilled foreigners to work in the United States year round, though d emand for such workers is high.

In the food industry alone in Washington state, servers, cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, cashiers and related workers account for nearly 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

Many others work at hotels, home-health agencies and other service companies.

The Senate bill would create a renewable W visa good for three years for these types of low-skill, non-agriculture jobs. The national cap on W visas would start at 20,000 a year, and climb to 200,000.

Workers eventually could apply for permanent status through the merit-based visas the proposed legislation would create.

— Kyung M. Song

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lturnbullL. Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com.

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