EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A Texas Democrat and a Florida Republican are sponsoring a bill giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship while shoring up border security and requiring employers to verify the work eligibility of their employees.

U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Florida, and Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, on Tuesday presented The Dignity Act of 2023 as a vehicle to bridge the divide between lawmakers who demand secure borders and those who want to bring millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

The bill requires a five-year technology investment plan at the U.S.-Mexico border, a $10 billion, five-year port expansion program, the hiring of additional border agents, and the establishment of a shelter services program for local communities dealing with migrants. It also calls for a seven-year “Dignity” protected status for undocumented workers with no criminal history followed by a five-year “Redemption” or waiting period to be eligible for U.S. citizenship.

Those on the Dignity program would be required to pay a $5,000 fee over seven years or a 1.5% levy if working. Another $5,000 would be due from the immigrant while enrolled in the Redemption program. That money will be used for border security, Salazar said.

She said the Government Accountability Office would have to certify that the U.S. borders are secure before immigrants in the program can become citizens and that each would have to go to “the back of the line” to apply.

U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Florida

“This is a historic moment where one Democrat and one Republican have decided to work together on the difficult issue of immigration,” Salazar said. “It is our intention to bring dignity to sectors under duress. We want to bring dignity to Border Patrol agents who are overworked, underpaid and confronting a cascade of drugs, terrorists and people over the past few years.

“We want to bring dignity to the business community and industry who need hands to fill millions of vacant jobs. […] And finally, bring dignity to millions of invisible workers, the undocumented class, they deserve respect.”

Salazar and Escobar said this is the first comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill in decades and comes at a time in which not only border communities but cities in the interior of the country are struggling to deal with migrants.

She introduced a slightly different version of the act in 2022, calling for the resumption of border wall construction and for the Department of Homeland Security to be able to send National Guard troops to the border. Escobar has co-sponsored or supported a number of immigration reform proposals in the past few years.

U.S. Rep. Maria Salazar, R-Florida; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Kathy Manning, D-North Carolina; and Hillary Scholten, D-Michigan hold a news conference to introduce legislation on immigration reform, outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on May 23, 2023. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Flanking Salazar at the presentation of the Dignity Act were U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez DeRemer, R-Oregon, and Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican from Puerto Rico who is one of six non-voting delegates from the island to the U.S. Congress.

“The time has come. It is long past time that Congress take action” on immigration, Escobar said during a news conference in front of the Capitol. “We haven’t seen movement in over 30 years and meanwhile the situation we have witnessed for a number of years have grown more dire. Communities like my own (El Paso, Texas), along with the southern border and now communities far from the border have felt the effects of inaction.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas

Other highlights of the proposed legislation include raising the visa cap and speeding up processing, giving asylum-seekers a 72-hour rest period after crossing the border to consult with legal counsel before a make-or-break credible fear interview, and having asylum officers resolve claims in 60 days as opposed to the current multi-year waits.

Paths to citizenship include the implementation of the Dream and Promise Act for those brought to the United States as children, the American Families United Act benefiting mixed-status families, military service and the Dignity program.

Asylum reform proposals include the construction of five regional asylum and economic migrant processing centers in Latin America.

The E-Verify program, which currently requires government contractors and government agencies to require proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. of their employees, would be “gradually phased in” at all businesses.

Salazar said migrants enrolled in the Dignity program would qualify for employment under E-Verify.

Early reaction favorable

Some immigrant advocacy organizations received the announcement favorably.

“It’s encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats working together on immigration reforms, especially given recent partisanship. Americans across political lines want these kinds of solutions,” said Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. “This appears to be a worthy effort to address the border, workforce issues, Dreamers, and undocumented immigrants. While some provisions may have room for improvement, this is a very productive step.”

Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of America’s Voice, said the Salazar-Escobar collaboration presents an alternative to enforcement-only GOP proposals.

: “We welcome and commend any serious effort to forge a bipartisan immigration fix and to replace shortsighted band-aid efforts with a comprehensive modernization of our broken immigration system,” she said.

Groups like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has a presence in Juarez, Mexico, continue to push for immigration reform.

“Congressional inaction continues to prolong the decades of limbo endured by far too many  […] while failing to create pathways to permanent residence or family reunion, our immigration system will continue to be in a state of disrepair,” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said in a statement on Tuesday highlighting recent testimony on a House subcommittee. “Only through comprehensive immigration reform can Congress fulfill the dual imperatives of  safe, orderly, and humane processes that respect the rights of people seeking safety while also meeting the need for a secure border.”

But conservative think-tanks like the American Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and other groups like Numbers USA were opposed even to Salazar’s original 2022 Dignity Act, calling it “another disastrous amnesty bill during the worst illegal immigration surge in the nation’s history.”