Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar have teamed up on a sprawling immigration bill that aims to revamp asylum processing, slash visa backlogs and provide a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants.
The nearly 500-page bill announced Tuesday represents a rare bipartisan effort on immigration, a topic that has become a political wedge issue and source of stalemate in Congress for decades. And it includes proposals that incorporate elements from earlier, narrower bipartisan immigration bills.
Salazar, who represents a Hispanic-majority district in South Florida, said at a news conference Tuesday that the unveiling of the bill represents a historic moment.
“Two members of Congress — one Democrat, one Republican — have decided to work on one of the most divisive topics in this country: immigration. Who wants to do that? Very few people. But we’re doing it,” Salazar said.
She told reporters afterward that she plans to next meet with Republican leadership and that she is open to exploring different potential procedural avenues for the bill to move forward.
The proposed legislation would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, known as Dreamers. It would also establish a program to allow other undocumented immigrants to live and work in the country legally if they pay restitution.
The measure would overhaul how asylum claims are processed at the border and invest more money into border security infrastructure and technology. And the bill would also address green card backlogs and revise the agricultural visa system.
This latest immigration effort comes 10 years after the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration package, which never got a vote in the Republican-led House.
Lawmakers have since tried and failed to pass legislation providing a citizenship path to Dreamers and other groups. There are currently about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with no avenue to fix their immigration statuses.
Congress is currently split along partisan lines the same way as it was in 2013, and the pressure for lawmakers to pass immigration legislation has heightened. A Texas federal judge is poised to strike down protections for Dreamers as soon as next month, while record numbers of migrants traveling to the southwest border have strained resources.
Escobar, whose district includes El Paso along the border, said she sees a chance for this time to be different from the 2013 effort. She pointed to recent bipartisan successes in Congress, including on bipartisan gun control and infrastructure legislation.
“There is, I think, an opportunity with a House of Representatives and with a Senate where there’s not an overwhelming majority on either side,” Escobar in an interview Monday. “In other words, there’s an opportunity through the middle to come up with a solution.”
The legislation is also supported by Democratic Reps. Hillary Scholten of Michigan and Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Republican Reps. Mike Lawler of New York, Lori Chavez-Deremer of Oregon and Del. Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico.
Still, the legislation will face challenges in the divided Congress, with Republicans wary of provisions legalizing undocumented immigrants and Democrats reluctant to accept more money toward border security.
Earlier this month, House Republicans passed a sweeping border security bill without a single Democratic vote, dooming any chances for the bill to move as drafted in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Also, the White House said President Joe Biden would veto that bill.
Salazar and Escobar’s legislation would establish a path to permanent residency for certain foreign citizens, including undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. younger than 18 and have lived in the country continuously for the three years prior to the bill’s enactment.
It would also offer a path to permanent residency for recipients of Temporary Protected Status, which offers deportation relief and work permits to immigrants from countries in crisis.
The last time Congress passed legislation that created a path to legal status for a broad population of undocumented immigrants was in 1986.
Building on Salazar’s “dignity” bill introduced last year, Salazar and Escobar’s bill would create a seven-year program that would permit other undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the country but wouldn’t put them on a path to citizenship.
Individuals would need to pay restitution to participate in the so-called dignity program, and those funds would be used to support American workers. Those who complete the dignity program may have the option to enter an additional five-year program, and pay more restitution, to become a permanent resident.
The proposed legislation also includes provisions that update the agricultural visa system and allow certain migrant farmworkers to apply for a temporary agricultural status, and eventually for permanent residency — mirroring legislation that passed the House last session with bipartisan support.
Asylum processing would also get an overhaul under the lawmakers’ proposal.
The legislation directs the Homeland Security secretary to construct five “humanitarian campuses” in high-traffic border areas where asylum-seekers could be processed.
These campuses would be required to have medical staff, licensed social workers, mental health professionals and child advocates. The bill states that migrants held at these facilities would have access to counsel and legal orientation programs.
Once migrants arrive at these centers, they would receive a 72-hour rest period, and then would be given an initial asylum eligibility screening within 15 days.
Individuals who clear this initial screening could have their final asylum claim approved by an immigration officer within 45 days. Those who do not could have the decision reviewed by a second asylum officer.
In a nod to Republican demands for heightened border security, it would provide the Department of Homeland Security with $25 billion for “a full border infrastructure system,” which would include physical barriers, Border Patrol facilities and border security technology.
The bill would require the Homeland Security secretary to construct physical barriers and operate infrastructure and technology along the southwest border.
It would also call for the creation of five processing centers in other countries across the Western Hemisphere for migrants to be prescreened for potential asylum eligibility. The Biden administration has already announced plans to open migrant processing centers abroad.
The proposed bill also takes aim at the work visa and green card systems.
It would raise the limit on certain types of green cards for citizens of each country from 7 percent of the total available to 15 percent, to try to alleviate backlogs that have kept citizens from India and China waiting years for a green card to become available. It would also make more green cards available by exempting the green card applicant’s minor children and spouses from the cap.
The bill would codify a program to provide work permits to the spouses of certain high-skilled visa holders and prevent the children of visa holders from “aging out” of their parents’ application because of processing delays.
It would also earmark millions of dollars to speed up visa processing, including more than $2.5 billion to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ operations and support account. Additionally, the bill would create a new position for an immigration agency coordinator to make recommendations to improve processing across USCIS and the departments of State and Labor.