U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar is attempting to do something that hasn’t been done for decades – sponsor bipartisan immigration reform legislation through a bitterly divided Congress.

Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, joined with U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar, R-Florida, on Tuesday to introduce the Dignity Act of 2023, which would grant legal protection to millions of people currently living in the United States without documents; expand border enforcement agencies and refine their mission; and overhaul the asylum process.

“In my view, the status quo is unacceptable. It is absolutely unacceptable and inaction from Congress is making things worse by the day and I think no one knows that better than El Paso,” Escobar said in a phone interview with El Paso Matters.

In a statement, Salazar said: “Our broken immigration system is frustrating Americans, causing people to suffer, and fracturing our country — economically, morally, socially, and politically. A solution is long overdue.” 

She said their bill “gives dignity to the border agents who need support, the job creators who need employees, the American people who need secure borders, and those who currently live in the shadows.”

The Republican leadership in the House – which pushed through a border enforcement bill earlier this month on a party-line vote – won’t allow the Escobar-Salazar bill to come to a vote in the chamber. 

That means supporters will have to rely on a procedural move called a “discharge petition.” The procedure, which has been used successfully just once in the past 20 years, requires the majority of voting House members – 218 – to sign a petition to force a bill from a committee to a vote before the full House. 

The concept of bipartisan immigration reform has deep support in polling. A new poll released on Monday by the American Immigration Forum the Bullfinch Group said 80% of respondents agreed with the statement: “As the U.S. works to restore order at the border, it is important that Republicans and Democrats work together to pass immigration reforms that address labor shortages and inflation, and protect people already here and contributing.” 

But Congress has not passed major reform of the immigration system since 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. The last major attempt at comprehensive reform was in 2013, led by the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators, which generated legislation that passed the Senate but never came to a vote in the House. 

“In many ways, the current political environment could not be more challenging, but in other ways, the current political environment could not present a greater opportunity,” Escobar said, referring to public concern over immigration issues as well as bipartisan successes the past two years on issues like infrastructure and gun violence.

Border Patrol agents pat down migrants who have come through Gate 42 to be processed on Wednesday, May 10. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Salazar, the Florida Republican co-sponsor of the Dignity Act, introduced a version of the bill in 2022, but the bill never came to a vote. That version of the bill, which had only Republican co-sponsors, never came to a vote in the House of Representatives then controlled by Democrats.

The 2023 version of the bill includes numerous changes, including more pathways for legal entry into the United States, Escobar said. And the bill already has three Republicans and three Democrats lined up as sponsors or co-sponsors.

The bill has provisions that will satisfy supporters of increased border enforcement and those who have called for more humane treatment of those coming to our borders and living in the United States without authorization. That also means the bill has provisions that face opposition by those groups.

Escobar said a bipartisan approach is the only path to enacting changes to a broken immigration system, because Democrats and Republicans have both failed in party-line attempts. That means both sides will have to accept provisions that never would make it into partisan legislation, she said.

“This will make a generational impact. This will transform families. This will improve our economy. This will modernize our border. This will alleviate the burdens that communities like ours have had to shoulder,” Escobar said.

Among the key provisions of the Dignity Act of 2023:

  • Creates a “dignity” legal status that provides protection for 11 million people currently living in the United States without legal authorization. Participants would pay $5,000 over seven years, as well as pass a criminal background check, pay any outstanding taxes, and begin or continue paying taxes. The bill would provide legal status for seven years, with the possibility of a secondary five-year program that could lead to citizenship.
  • Creates more legal pathways for people to enter the country. Current law leaves asylum as the only legal path to entry to the United States for tens of millions of people, which incentivises human smugglers, Escobar said. 
  • Overhauls the asylum process by speeding the determination of claims, which currently take years, to 60 days. A major provision would set up five “humanitarian campuses” on the border to handle asylum claims. The bill would establish five more regional processing centers in Latin America where asylum seekers can be screened and processed. 
  • People seeking asylum at the border generally will have to do so at ports of entry. The bill gives migrants an opportunity to go to a port of entry for an asylum claim if they first cross between ports. Current law allows for asylum requests to be made by people regardless of where they crossed the border.
  • Provides $25 billion for additional border security efforts, including expanding Border Patrol staffing from the current 19,000 agents to 22,478 agents and 1,200 new processing coordinators by September 2025. Pay for Border Patrol agents would increase by 14%. The number of Customs and Border Protection officers, who generally work at ports of entry, would grow to 27,725 from the current 26,000.
  • Changes the goal of border enforcement from “operational control” of the border, defined as the prevention of all unauthorized entry into the country, to “operational advantage,” which is defined as “the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security objectives.”
  • Calls for  $10 billion over five years for expansions and improvements at ports of entry.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.