There Is a Glimmer of Hope for Passing Immigration Reform in the 2023 Dignity Act

It’s high time and long overdue that comprehensive immigration reform finally be enacted and both Democrats and Republicans must make concessions. Both parties in principle agree that immigration reform is needed but they have differing priorities in some areas and actual common ground in many others which is why it’s mindboggling that meaningful reform has not be accomplished in close to four decades.

It’s fair to say that inaction on immigration over these decades is not entirely due to contentious impasse.  Perhaps in the first 15 years since the last overhaul, there was no urgency for further action. As we know, major policy takes time to implement and for a new work culture with these changes to settle in.

Following those 15 or so years up to the present, inaction on immigration could be attributed to the increasing partisanship politics and increasing caustic power struggle in D.C. – wherein the party not in power, does not want to make it easy for the party in power to keep their power by handing over legislative accomplishments. It’s a vicious pattern, but has been symptomatic D.C. politics for some time and a reason why little gets done, including reforms to immigration.

But some legislation must be passed, right? In the very few things that do get done, it’s a result of the core leadership in the House and Senate prioritizing their top items they want accomplished and using their political capital (kind of like an IOU) to make it happen.

So now we’re looking at immigration reform competing against vital budget items, Social Security, Medicare, health care, education, military funding, veterans’ benefits, pet projects, and so on. And in that environment, the urgency of immigration reform somehow in lawmakers’ prioritization suddenly doesn’t seem as “urgent.”

This phenomenon – of immigration reform getting lost in the mix of prioritization – perhaps can explain Democrats and Republicans’ (up to the Bush era) inaction to overhaul immigration.

But added to this somewhere beginning from the birth of the now defunct Tea Party and current Trumpism – collectively seen as the rise of populist right movement in the U.S. – xenophobia has become election mint and the top or close to the top reason why right-wing politicians in red states, especially those along or close to the southern border, get elected.

That xenophobia in the form of policy is the adoption of hardline positions on immigration. Suddenly it’s become extremely difficult to negotiate immigration reform on policy alone. In the Bush era and to some factions of business-minded Republicans today, they’ve been receptive to many of the immigration reforms Democrats support and understand that immigrants are good for our economy and communities.

But if you remember while Trump was president, his idea of immigration reform was gutting the foundational core of immigration from being family-based immigration to merit based immigration. He wanted to mandate English proficiency. He wanted to do away with (and still wants to) get rid of the 14th Amendment or birthright citizenship. He came up with all kinds of formulas and quotas that his entire agenda on immigration was to drastically reduce the numbers of immigrants and essentially stop family-based immigration. And of course, there was the failed border wall fiasco.

It is during this period and perhaps some years prior (again with the Tea Party) when policy really became a sticking point and root to impasse (as opposed to not prioritizing immigration reform). There are others who will argue that the U.S. was always xenophobic, which is true, but that doesn’t explain why the policies implemented over the close to four decades since the last immigration reform were kept lawful and enabled millions of immigrants to continue entering the U.S.

We already saw what Trump wanted to do as president with immigration reform. Immigrant communities should also be aware that second place presidential candidate for the Republican party Gov. Ron DeSantis echoes many of those same xenophobic policies Trump has and is doing.

What has a chance of passing in 2023?
2023 has two major immigration reform bills. The Republican-majority House passed one, which is so narrow – mostly wants more funding for border security and the continuation of building a southern border wall – that President Joe Biden said he would veto it. The U.S. Senate will not even work with the House on that bill.

There could be a hail Mary chance of passing a bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) and Veronica Escobar (D-TX) not that long ago called the Dignity Act. It’s not comprehensive to the extent that includes family-based green cards.

But it addresses border security that Republicans and also many Democrats want by providing $25 billion in border security.

It would mandate a nationwide E-verify system to ensure all American businesses are hiring legal workers – something Republicans and some Democrats favor.

It will make changes to the asylum process like rapidly expediting the decision-making of asylees’ cases and putting an end to catch-and-release – something Republicans could support and some Democrats.

It proposes more order at the border that would require all asylum seekers to go through legal ports-of-entry. If an immigrant is caught twice trying to sneak in at a non-port-of-entry then declare they are seeking asylum, they would not be able to declare asylum in the future. Republicans certainly would want tougher action.

It establishes a Dignity Program, a practical solution for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years to be eligible for a seven-year process that would allow them to work, pay restitution, and earn legal status. Republicans would be hard pressed to agree with this provision.

It seeks to improve the country’s current Guest Worker program – something both parties can support.

Big picture assessment, this largely is a Republican-leaning bill on immigration reform, and it actually might be difficult for the lead Democrat to get her colleagues on board, if anything. It’s not comprehensive enough, but it is worth supporting, if negotiations do not alter the features too dramatically from what they are currently.

A positive outlook — at least the 2023 GOP proposal is not the disastrous piece of legislation that Trump wanted passed while in office. Let us advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that balances both human rights and dignity with the needs and values of the host (our) communities. In this search for balance, we should be guided by dignity, respect and fairness.

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