Bipartisan group unveils bill to overhaul immigration system

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a broad proposal to revamp the outdated and dysfunctional U.S. immigration system by increasing border security funding, expanding lawful migration channels and legalizing some of the immigrants currently living in the country without permission.

The nearly 500-page bill —  introduced by lead sponsors Reps. María Elvira Salazar, a Republican from Miami, and Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents a district along the border in Texas — is the most detailed and wide-ranging bid during the current Congress to reform U.S. immigration laws, which have not been updated in any significant way since the 1990s.

“The only way our country is going to adequately meet the challenges before us is this way, in a bipartisan manner, with true compromise. Because waiting for either side’s idea of what is perfect is exactly what’s gotten us into the situation we face today,” Escobar, who represents El Paso, told reporters Tuesday.

Like other previous comprehensive immigration bills, however, the proposal faces steep odds in a deeply divided Congress, in part due to widespread opposition among Republicans in the House to legalize unauthorized immigrants without first enacting tougher policies to deter migrant arrivals along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as sweeping restrictions on asylum.

The new proposal, called the Dignity Act of 2023, attempts to address concerns raised by Republicans and moderate Democrats about illegal border crossings, which have hit record levels during the Biden administration amid mass migration and displacement in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rep. María Elvira Salazar speaks during a press conference about immigration outside the Capitol on May 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Rep. María Elvira Salazar speaks during a press conference about immigration outside the Capitol on May 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

If enacted, the bill would increase funding for Customs and Border Protection so the agency can hire additional employees, construct barriers in some sectors of the southern border and improve technology to better curtail human and illicit drug smuggling, according to a summary.

The measure would also seek to reduce releases of migrants with court dates, a practice Republicans deride as “catch and release.” Instead of being released, migrants would be held in processing centers until asylum officers determine whether they should be deported or allowed to stay because they have credible claims. Additional funding would be allocated to hire asylum officers and create loans for lawyers to assist migrants.

To discourage overland journeys to the U.S. border, the bill would fund centers in Latin America where would-be migrants could be screened for eligibility to come to the U.S. with the government’s permission, either because they pass initial asylum screenings or qualify for work visas. The Biden administration announced earlier this spring it would set up similar centers, starting in Colombia and Guatemala.

Salazar and Escobar’s proposal would also create a massive, multi-step program to allow immigrants already living in the U.S. unlawfully to apply for legal status and, in some cases, American citizenship.

Unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, colloquially known as “Dreamers,” would be allowed to apply for permanent residency and ultimately citizenship through a version of the Dream Act proposal that has been floated in Congress since 2001.

Other unauthorized immigrants would have the option to apply for a temporary legal status that could be renewed over a 7-year period. It would allow them to work and live in the U.S. legally, and to travel abroad, if they pass background checks and pay taxes and a $5,000 fee over the course of the program.

Those who successfully complete the 7-year program would then be eligible to apply for permanent legal status. After another five years, they could apply for citizenship. Those who enlist in the military could qualify for an expedited path to citizenship.

A separate program would give farm and agricultural workers living in the U.S. illegally a chance to request temporary legal status and, if they plan to stay in the country long-term, permanent residency.

“For those skeptics, many of them in my Republican Party, that say we are legitimatizing millions without the border being secure, as it has happened for 30 years, listen to this: there’s a provision within the Dignity Act that guarantees that no one will become an American until the Government Accountability Office certifies that the border is secure,” Salazar said Tuesday.

A significant expansion of legal immigration is also a key component of the bill.

The bill would raise the decades-old per-country caps on immigrant visas for would-be immigrants who have family members or employers in the U.S. willing to sponsor them to come to the country as permanent residents.

Under the proposal, the H-2B program for temporary nonagricultural workers would stop counting recent returning workers against the 66,000 yearly cap, so more visas could be issued. It would also expand the H-2A program for farm and agricultural workers by allowing employers to hire workers for year-round sectors, like dairy farms, and opening the program to additional industries, such as forestry and seafood processing.

The bill would create a new visa for those looking to come to the U.S. temporarily to visit family members, and allow foreign students to apply for a permanent immigration program, while staying on their temporary visa, if they choose to.

Those proposals would be paired with provisions designed to increase compliance with U.S. immigration laws, including by phasing in a mandate for businesses to use the E-Verify system to ensure they are only hiring workers with legal status. It would also enhance visa screenings.

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