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Texas Democrat unveils bipartisan immigration plan with path to citizenship, border security spending

 U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, introduces the 'Dignity Act' outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday during a news conference on immigration policy. Credit: Julia Nikhinson for The Texas Tribune
Julia Nikhinson
The Texas Tribune
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, introduces the 'Dignity Act' outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday during a news conference on immigration policy.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, unveiled bipartisan border legislation Tuesday that would offer a legal pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants while investing in security measures along the borders with Mexico and Canada.

The bill, dubbed the “Dignity Act,” is the latest effort in Congress to address humanitarian and economic concerns at the border and the first package of its scale this year to be presented with bipartisan support. It comes shortly after the House GOP, building on a plan crafted by Texas Republicans, passed a border bill that immigrant rights activists and Democrats decried as punitive and politically unviable.

Escobar joined with Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar of Florida to lead the effort, with the support of Democrats Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Hillary Scholten of Michigan and Republicans Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico and Lori Chavez-DeRemer of California.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, also supports the bill and has been one of President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy allies in Congress.

Congress has tried and failed for decades to pass comprehensive border and immigration legislation. Pressure increased last year as federal agents apprehended a record number of migrants and protections for Dreamers — migrants who arrived illegally as children — came under legal threat. A pandemic-era provision that let federal forces expel asylum-seekers also expired this month.

The Dignity Act would boost funding for Border Patrol and border barriers while shortening wait times for asylum-seekers who are making their case to legally remain in the United States. Asylum-seekers currently can wait for months or years for their cases to be adjudicated.

The bill also includes a “Dignity Program” that would give undocumented immigrants legal status if they pay taxes and undergo a criminal background check. The program could give up to 11 million people already in the country the right to work and travel in the United States, including more than a million who live in Texas. It would also require employers to eventually use E-Verify, an electronic service that checks employees’ immigration status.

The bill would also create processing centers for migrants in Mexico, Central America and South America, where they could be screened in advance for asylum eligibility.

Unlike Republican border efforts, migrants wouldn’t be required to wait out their asylum cases in Mexico. The package allows migrants a 72-hour period after arriving in the U.S. to rest and seek legal counsel before seeing an asylum case official.

The contours of the bill contain parallels to other border and immigration proposals recently floating on Capitol Hill. The bill includes the Dream and Promise Act, a bill passed out of the then-Democrat-run House in 2021 that would allow recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to apply for citizenship. More than 100,000 DACA recipients, who were brought into the United States illegally as children, live in Texas.

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, crafted a bipartisan border framework late last year that would pair a path to citizenship for migrants who arrived as children and reductions in work visa backlogs with greater funding for border enforcement and extended expulsion authority for asylum-seekers.

Escobar and her partners have so far kept their legislation close to the chest and will need to recruit additional support if the bill is to have a chance of passage in the House. But Republicans have been adamant in several of their more punitive border policies, and far-right members also gained the ability to unseat McCarthy as part of their deal for the Californian to become speaker, increasing the political stakes for any bipartisan legislation.