President Barack Obama and the Senate negotiators have committed to reducing the existing backlog of people waiting for family visas, and this would probably happen by adding visas to speed the process. The bill would also probably raise the country cap that limits any one country to 7 percent of total immigrants per year, probably to 15 percent.
Those changes are good news for advocates of family immigration, who are also encouraged by Obama's longstanding commitment to family unification and pledges by Democrats in the negotiating group, including Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to safeguard the family system. Obama, who's said citizens shouldn't have to wait years to be reunited with family, is preparing his own immigration bill to unveil if the Senate process stalls.
The more contentious decisions will surround whether any of the current family categories — such as sibling — is reduced or eliminated. Lawmakers have made such attempts in the past, arguing that a focus on immediate family members is more appropriate. Such changes could mean that people who once would have eventually been eligible for U.S. citizenship wouldn't have that opportunity.
It also remains to be seen whether lawmakers choose to make more green cards available overall, as advocates want, or shift visas from the family category to boost employment categories. Another question is how quickly illegal immigrants who would be put on a path to citizenship by the new bill could petition to reunite with family members.
Advocates say senators could end up crafting a hybrid system that weights family ties in addition to work skills, something Rubio suggested could happen.
"We're still going to have a family-based part of it. I believe that having family in the U.S. is one of the indicators of success," said Rubio, who's talked about his own family members from Cuba coming to the U.S. through the family immigration system. "It's just some of the folks that are coming on family-based will be able to come on the skill-based as well. They're not mutually exclusive."
Depending on how it's crafted, any new system could become an unexpected flashpoint in the immigration debate. In the last round of immigration negotiations in 2007, the Catholic Church ended up opposing action on the bill in part because of discomfort with a proposal that replaced the family-based system with one that awarded points based on job skills, English ability, education and family ties in handing out visas. It's possible that some aspects of that approach may be adopted this time as well, according to a Senate aide.
Senators say they'll attempt to strike a balance, but some fear that in the end, more job-based immigration could come at the expense of family members overseas.
"We're going to expedite some of the family stuff initially, but over time it's got to be more merit-based," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the Senate negotiators.