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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, unveiled bipartisan border legislation Tuesday that would offer a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while investing in security measures along the borders with Mexico and Canada.
The bill, dubbed the “Dignity Act,” is the latest effort in Congress to address humanitarian and economic concerns at the border and the first package of its scale this year to be presented with bipartisan support. It comes shortly after the House GOP, building on a plan crafted by Texas Republicans, passed a border bill that immigrant rights activists and Democrats decried as punitive and politically unviable.
Escobar joined with Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar of Florida to lead the effort, with the support of Democrats Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Hillary Scholten of Michigan and Republicans Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico and Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, has been one of President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy allies in Congress and said in a statement that he would champion the bill in the Senate.
Congress has tried and failed for decades to pass comprehensive border and immigration legislation. Pressure increased last year as federal agents apprehended a record number of migrants and protections for Dreamers — migrants who arrived illegally as children — came under legal threat. A pandemic-era provision that let federal forces expel asylum-seekers also expired this month.
The Dignity Act would boost funding for Border Patrol and border barriers while shortening wait times for asylum-seekers who are making their case to legally remain in the United States. Asylum-seekers currently can wait for months or years for their cases to be adjudicated.
The bill also includes a “Dignity Program” that would give undocumented immigrants legal status if they pay taxes and undergo a criminal background check. The program could give up to 11 million people already in the country the right to work and travel in the United States, including more than a million who live in Texas. It would also require employers to eventually use E-Verify, an electronic service that checks employees’ immigration status.
The bill would also create processing centers for migrants in Mexico, Central America and South America, where they could be screened in advance for asylum eligibility.
Unlike Republican border efforts, migrants wouldn’t be required to wait out their asylum cases in Mexico. The package allows migrants a 72-hour period after arriving in the U.S. to rest and seek legal counsel before seeing an asylum case official.
The contours of the bill contain parallels to other border and immigration proposals recently floating on Capitol Hill. The bill includes the Dream and Promise Act, a bill passed out of the then-Democrat-run House in 2021 that would allow recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to apply for citizenship. More than 100,000 DACA recipients, who were brought into the United States illegally as children, live in Texas.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, crafted a bipartisan border framework late last year that would pair a path to citizenship for migrants who arrived as children and reductions in work visa backlogs with greater funding for border enforcement and extended expulsion authority for asylum-seekers. Sinema expressed openness to Escobar and Salazar's bill.
“Congresswomen Salazar and Escobar’s legislation presents another opportunity to help us find lasting, non partisan solutions that secure the border, keep Arizona communities safe, and ensure the fair and humane treatment of migrants," Sinema said in a statement.
Escobar and her partners had kept their legislation close to the chest and will need to recruit additional support if the bill is to have a chance of passage in the House. But Republicans have been adamant in several of their more punitive border policies, and far-right members also gained the ability to unseat McCarthy as part of their deal for the Californian to become speaker, increasing the political stakes for any bipartisan legislation.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Escobar said she and Salazar shared their plan with a bipartisan group of senators on the flight home from a recent congressional trip to Mexico City. She said senators including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, were receptive and have kept in touch with her as it was written. Cornyn has said for months that he would be open to a bipartisan border and immigration bill and cautioned his fellow Republicans in the House to write legislation that would gain support among Senate Democrats.
Escobar said now that the Republican border bill passed the House, “I hope it frees up a lot of moderate Republicans to say, you know, I voted for what House leadership presented to us, but it's not going to go anywhere in the Senate.”
Escobar and Salazar acknowledged that there were difficult compromises made to reach a bipartisan package with chances of survival in a closely divided Congress. Escobar said she had reached out to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, adding that recruiting support will continue.
“This is not a perfect bill. It is not everything that Democrats want. It's not everything that Republicans want. It is a breakthrough, a compromise,” Escobar said. “So there will be a lot of conversations, also with outside groups, of course, to talk through the aspects of the bill that I hope appeals to them, and to talk through those aspects of the bill that they are uncomfortable with.”
Escobar said she had reservations at first about asylum seekers not having access to due process at the border if their hearings were expedited, saying she hoped to address the concern by offering loan forgiveness for legal representation for migrants.
The inclusion of E-Verify was a major point of contention among Republicans when they wrote their own border bill. Many in the party said it was an important tool to protect American workers, while others said it would harm small business and agriculture interests that rely on undocumented labor. Progressives are also largely opposed to mandating E-Verify, saying it shuts undocumented immigrants out of the work force. Escobar and Salazar said the “Dignity Program” will give undocumented workers the chance to work legally in the country and that the E-Verify mandate would take time to implement.
Democrats are also largely opposed to the construction of a border wall, citing humanitarian and ecological concerns. It was one of the key priorities of former President Donald Trump and is politically toxic for much of the left. Republicans’ Secure the Border Act included a provision to resume construction of a border wall.
Escobar’s office denied inclusion of border wall funding in the bill, but it does require the Department of Homeland Security to create barriers and detection technology in critical sections of the border. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a border Democrat who has worked with Sinema and Tillis on border issues, said those barriers were just the border wall under a different name.
“Fencing is the wall,” he said.
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Correction, : U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer was mistakenly identified as a Republican from California. She is from Oregon.