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The Dignity Act Could Signal Increasing Support for Immigration Reform on Capitol Hill

Miami Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a freshman Republican from Florida’s 27th congressional district, last week introduced an immigration reform bill that she calls the “Dignity Act.” Rep. Salazar claims the bill will both halt undocumented immigration to the United States and provide a “dignified solution” to the legal status of the more than 10.3 million undocumented immigrants already living in this country.

Though a new level of Republican support for immigration reform—in an election year no less—is certainly a noteworthy and potentially positive sign, the Dignity Act would require significant modifications to achieve Salazar’s stated objectives.

The 484-page bill does include a potential pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already here. But it seems highly doubtful that the conditions required for that pathway to become active—like a 90% apprehension rate at the border—will ever be met.

Under the Dignity Act, Dreamers and DACA recipients would be eligible to receive 10 years of “conditional permanent resident status.” Recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) would be eligible for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status once they accumulated five years of “continuous presence” in the United States.

Any immigrant who didn’t fall into one of these categories and lacked legal status would have to apply for the so-called “Dignity Program,” This would be a 10-year program of “work authorization and protection from removal proceedings” in the form of deferred action, available for undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check, pay any back taxes they owe, pay $10,000 in restitution over the 10 years of the program, acquire health insurance, remain employed for 5 years, and give up 2% of every paycheck to the “Immigration Infrastructure Fund.”

However, this lengthy and expensive “Dignity Program” would not provide a path to a green card on its own. Under the Dignity Act, no undocumented immigrant can earn a green card until the Border Patrol certifies that it is achieving and maintaining “a 90% or greater detection and apprehension rate of individuals attempting to illegally cross the border.” An apprehension rate that high has never been achieved in U.S. history. From 2006 to 2018, the Department of Homeland Security reported that the “observational apprehension rate” fluctuated between a low of 63.5% in 2006 and a high of 79.4% in 2016.

The 90% apprehension rate would then have to be certified by a very large “Border Security Certification Task Force” that includes representatives from every border state and both majority and minority members of Congress. The entire process could therefore be easily politicized and blocked by a hostile administration or Congress.

Once the goal of “90%” is achieved and certified, immigrants who make it to the end of the “Dignity Program” after 10 years would then have two choices. They could get a renewable five-year “Dignity Visa” that would grant them legal status but make them ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Or they could enter the five-year “Redemption Program,” which would make them eligible for citizenship if they learn English and U.S. civics and either perform 200 hours of community service or pay $2,500 every 20 months into the “American Worker Fund” (to pay for the training and upskilling of unemployed or displaced American workers).

The bill would also create a Catch-22 for any undocumented immigrant who wanted to come forward and apply for the Dignity Program. A provision of the bill would, for the first time in United States history, make it a felony to be undocumented. Thus, any undocumented immigrants applying under the legalization provision would be required to admit to an ongoing federal crime for which they could be arrested at any moment. This alone would likely prevent most people from applying for status.

This would be a waste given that putting all undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship would increase U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by up to $1.7 trillion over the next decade. Even just passing the DREAM Act would increase GDP by around 0.08% (or $15.2 billion) per year, which amounts to an average of $15,371 for each legalized worker.

Leaving aside the multiple shortcomings of the legalization provisions, the Dignity Act also includes several problematic enforcement provisions.

The bill calls for the detention of families seeking asylum in four Regional Processing Centers (RPCs) along the border for up to 150 days. This violates the terms of the Flores Settlement regarding the conditions under which children can be incarcerated. The bill would also make it a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison for any immigrant to make a “fraudulent representation” concerning asylum. And the bill would explicitly authorize the likely-unconstitutional practice of indefinite and mandatory detention for immigrants before they have ever been ordered removed.

Salazar’s Dignity Act would exempt contracts for the construction, maintenance, and operation of border walls from all other laws (such as the Endangered Species Act). Plus, the bill would add 3,000 new agents to the Border Patrol, make E-Verify mandatory nationwide, and make it a felony crime to “aid and abet” someone remaining in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, which could have a chilling effect on lawyers and advocates for immigrant rights.

The bill has six original co-sponsors in addition to Rep. Salazar: Representatives Dan Newhouse (WA-04), John Curtis (UT-03), Pete Sessions (TX-17), Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (PR), Tom Reed (NY-23), and Peter Meijer (MI-03).

While it’s certainly a welcome sight to see seven Republicans support a bill that includes a legalization program for undocumented immigrants, the bill demands an unrealistically high border apprehension rate before it even allows most undocumented immigrants to apply for permanent legal status. Even immigrants who are allowed to apply for legal status wouldn’t be able to earn a green card unless they paid tens-of-thousands of dollars over the course of 15 years.

The bill goes out of its way to create new crimes that will throw more immigrants behind bars for absolutely no good reason, ensuring that many who would be eligible for status would not apply.

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