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Does a New Immigration Reform Bill Have a Chance?
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Does a New Immigration Reform Bill Have a Chance?

A proposal splitting the difference between Republicans and Democrats faces steep odds.

A Border Patrol agent walks along a line of migrants waiting to turn themselves in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol agents near the Paso del Norte Port of Entry after in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Spending six months hammering out a comprehensive immigration bill they hope offers something for even the hardliners in their respective parties may have been the easy part for Reps. María Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, and Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat.

For one, little else besides the debt ceiling is getting attention on Capitol Hill right now—even for Salazar just a day after rolling out her bill at a press conference. “We’re talking about the debt ceiling,” she said Wednesday when asked about the bill. “So why don’t you give me a couple of days—because that’s the number one focus.”

But even after the debt ceiling question is resolved, then comes what may be harder than crafting the legislation: building enough support to get the Dignity Act through Congress.

What’s in the Dignity Act?

The 500-page bill attempts to address a number of thorny immigration issues.

It allocates $25 billion for border security, including hiring more Border Patrol agents, adding physical barriers at the border, investing in technology upgrades, and changing how federal agencies address cartels. It would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to designate cartels as Special Transnational Criminal Organizations and to designate organizations as criminal street gangs: Anyone involved in those organizations would be inadmissible to the United States and deportable. It would also stiffen penalties against human trafficking violations. The bill also cracks down on those caught crossing between ports of entry, establishing a “new two-strike policy” that the sponsors say will “ensure legitimate asylum seekers are processed appropriately” while apprehending “bad actors.”

The bill also establishes “humanitarian campuses” at the border, where asylum-seekers would stay until their cases are resolved within 60 days (instead of being released into the U.S. under current policy). It also funds immigration centers in Latin America to pre-screen asylum-seekers before they come to the border—an idea the Biden administration has recently rolled out.

For the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, the bill would create the option of pursuing legal statuses with the option to apply for citizenship, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). One provision—likely designed to woo members of the GOP—states that none of those 11 million immigrants is eligible for citizenship until the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) judges that the border has been secure for a year using metrics the bill lays out. It would also task the GAO with publishing annual reports determining the progress of implementing the bill’s border security provisions.

The bill sponsors emphasize that “no taxpayer funds will be used to pay for the Dignity Act.” Their plan is to deduct a tax of 1.5 percent from any individuals granted work authorization through the “Dignity Program.” Participants would also pay a fee of $5,000 over seven years. The plan also establishes the “Redemption Program” which follows after completion of the Dignity Program and is a pathway to earning permanent legal status. It requires community service or an additional $5,000.

Revenue generated by the bill would go to border security and to establish a new fund for job training for American workers who believe they’ve lost job opportunities because of migrant workers. The bill also requires U.S. employers to use a federal employment eligibility verification known as E-Verify.

Can the bill get the votes it needs?

It will be difficult to move this legislation through the House. One option: a discharge petition. Salazar and Escobar would need to gather support from 218 members for it to pass through that process, which would circumvent the need for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s backing.

It’s not clear the sponsors will be able to meet that threshold. Three Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors: Reps. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico, Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon, and Mike Lawler of New York. Democratic co-sponsors include Michigan Rep. Hillary Scholten and Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina.

Salazar plans to meet soon with more hardline Republicans, including members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), according to the Washington Post. But she’s already facing skepticism. Rep. Byron Donalds, an HFC member, “likes Maria but doesn’t support the bill,” a staffer told The Dispatch. “He’s firmly anti-amnesty.”

And Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, said he “can’t really see it going very far.”

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican who was key to negotiating the Secure the Border Act earlier this month, at first hesitated to weigh in until he’d had a chance to look at the bill, but acknowledged he didn’t think it would gain steam: “Right now I think we need to get the security bill done.”

That legislation primarily focuses on managing the flow of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border through restarting construction on a border wall, funding surveillance and technology at ports of entry, and codifying some of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, as well as implementing E-Verify. But it stands no chance of passing in a Senate controlled by Democrats.

When asked if he thought other Freedom Caucus members would have the same view, Roy nodded yes.

They may have support from leadership: Majority Leader Steve Scalise recently said he doesn’t envision a bill dealing with broader immigration questions passing until border security is dealt with first, according to the Washington Post: “We’ve got to first start with border security,” he said. “If we get that done, then you can start talking about the interior problems that exist.”

More moderate members in the GOP caucus were less negative, though many also were caught up with other priorities: “I’m still making up my mind, but there is lots of goodness in it,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican. Others who supported a previous version of the bill said they wanted to look at the updated text before signing on.

Among Democrats, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told The Dispatch he hasn’t had a chance to look at the bill but said any fix for immigration issues should be bipartisan. 

Getting support in the Senate will be another hurdle to the Dignity Act becoming law: Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware praised the bill Tuesday in a statement and signaled plans to introduce corresponding legislation in the Senate.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a former Democrat turned independent, who last Congress worked on (an ultimately unsuccessful) last-minute bid to pass immigration reform, called the legislation “another opportunity to help us find lasting, non partisan solutions,” on immigration issues.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten, an original co-sponsor to the Dignity Act, acknowledged immigration reform has bedeviled Congress for years.

“Leaving this issue unaddressed is not an option anymore,” she said. “We are reaching such a critical boiling point on immigration issues, and we’re continuing to see the national security threat, the economic emergency and the humanitarian crisis that it presents.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.