U.S. Rep. María Salazar, R-Fla., speaks to reporters following a press conference at the U.S. Capitol about immigration legislation, on May 23, 2023. (Ariana Figueroa/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of six U.S. House lawmakers on Tuesday described details of proposed legislation that would create a legal pathway for citizenship for undocumented people through work requirements, and would also fund border security measures.
The two Latinas who spearheaded the bill, Reps. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat, and María Elvira Salazar, Republican of Florida, said their Dignity Act aims to target the more than 10 million undocumented people in the country and ease the way for legal employment of workers in industries such as agriculture that are experiencing labor shortages.
Salazar said she is planning to talk to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., about the bill and to pitch it to her GOP colleagues.
The other Republicans at the press conference were Reps. Mike Lawler of New York and Jenniffer González Colón of Puerto Rico, who does not have a vote in Congress due to the colonial status of the island. The bill text is not yet available, but Salazar previously introduced her own version of the bill last Congress.
The other lawmakers at the presser included Democratic Reps. Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Hillary Scholten of Michigan.
“It’s our intention to bring dignity to many sectors in this country who are under duress,” Salazar said.
Escobar said the only way for the U.S. to meet the challenges of immigration is to do so in a bipartisan way.
“Waiting for either side’s idea of what is perfect, is exactly what’s gotten us into the situation we face today,” she said.
Multiple immigration issues
Escobar said the bill tackles three immigration issues. It would address the plight of the millions of undocumented people who are already working and living in the U.S.; reform the border process to bring a humanitarian approach to processing migrants; and create processing centers in other countries to help migrants understand “the high hill there is to climb for true asylum claims.”
“This bill represents a breakthrough, a true breakthrough, and a true compromise, and again, if we continue to wait for the perfect, we will continue to wait decades into the future,” Escobar said. “The challenges will get much worse, and we will have abdicated our responsibility and not perform our role as serious legislators.”
The Biden administration is currently working with Colombia and Guatemala to open processing centers in those countries to ease migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Under the bill, asylum cases would be processed within 60 days.
If an undocumented person had been in working on the country for more than five years without a criminal record, they could apply to be in a “dignity program” created under the legislation. They would be protected from deportation but also would be barred from federal assistance and required to pay for their own health insurance.
The bill would also require an undocumented person to pay $700 each year for seven years, on top of 1.5% that would be taxed from their paycheck, known as the “dignity levy.”
Salazar said it was not much money to pay “in exchange for living out of the shadows.”
She said that adds up to about $5,000 per undocumented person, and accounting for an estimated 10 million undocumented people, it would equal around $45 billion.
Salazar said that the $45 billion would go toward border security, such as the hiring of officials, upgraded technology, asylum officers and humanitarian services. She said this would ensure that any money collected from taxes does not go toward border security.
Funding from the dignity program would also go toward a program aimed at fighting anti-immigrant sentiments. Salazar said it would allow any “American who believes that he or she has lost his opportunities job opportunity to an undocumented” person to be retrained or reeducated.
“No one can say that the undocumented are stealing anything away from you,” Salazar said of that specific provision.
After those seven years, if an undocumented person wants to become an American citizen, they could apply for another program known as the redemption pathway, where they would have to pay another $5,000 over the course of five years, or $1,000 a year, under the proposal.
An undocumented person would be required to learn English and pass a civics exam, and “then you go back to the end of the line,” to become a citizen, Salazar said.
“But in the meantime, you are living in a dignified life,” she said.
There are several caveats in the bill that aim to quell GOP objections, such as a requirement that for anyone to become an American citizen, the Government Accountability Office – a non-partisan agency – needs to issue a report that concludes that the border has been secure for one year. Salazar said those parameters would be up to GAO’s discretion.
Salazar also stressed that the bill has harsher penalties for unauthorized immigration than the bill that House Republicans earlier this month passed though she did not go into detail.
House Republicans passed a border security bill that reinstated Trump-era immigration policies, such as the continuation of the construction of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and detainment of families.
It would also strip funding from nonprofits that aid migrants, beef up staffing of Border Patrol agents and restrict the use of parole programs that the Biden administration has used to allow nationals from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to work temporarily in the U.S.
The symbolic measure was in rebuke of the Biden administration winding down a pandemic-era tool known as Title 42 that allowed the U.S. to prevent people from claiming asylum and expelling migrants due to a public health emergency such as the coronavirus. It has no future in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
As for the Dignity Act, whether it’s passed by itself or attached as a rider on another piece of legislation, Salazar said, “That’s up to God.”
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