Congress Introduces Sweeping Immigration Reform Bill 'DIGNIDAD Act' to Address Systematic Challenges

by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick

On May 23, members of Congress introduced what has sadly become an increasingly rare bit of legislation; a comprehensive immigration reform bill aimed at addressing large-scale systematic problems with large-scale systematic action. The “DIGNIDAD (Dignity) Act” represents one of the most sweeping attempts to modify the immigration system that has been proposed in years.

Like many such proposals, the bill is grounded in the principle of trading increased enforcement (primarily at the border) for changes to the legal immigration system and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. While many recent attempts to reach similar compromises have been much more limited, the DIGNIDAD Act would provide a path to status for nearly all undocumented immigrants—although one that could take upwards of 14 years for some people and cost at least $10,000 in penalties and fees. In exchange, the bill would massively overhaul how asylum seekers are processed at the border, fund hundreds of miles of new physical barriers, and provide for the hiring of thousands of new Border Patrol agents.

While it remains unclear whether the bill has any path to becoming law, it remains important that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are having these debates. With a divided Congress, any eventual solution to the problems long-plaguing our immigration system is going to require compromise, and it’s long-past time for lawmakers to acknowledge that a broad reform is still possible.

What is the bill’s primary path to legal status for undocumented immigrants?

The bill creates a brand new “Dignity” and “Redemption” Program available to any undocumented immigrant who has been in the United States for at least 5 years before the law is passed. Those who are not eligible for the program would be given a 24-month period to leave the United States without being subject to the 3- and 10-year bars on reentry that currently apply to most undocumented immigrants.

Under the “Dignity Program,” people would have to pass a background check, clear certain criminal history bars, and pay $1,000. After that, the person would be given permission to remain in the U.S. for 7 years. Over that period, the person would have to report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) every two years, provide testimony of “good standing in their community,” and pay an additional $4,000 in installments of at least $2,000. Fees and restitution paid under these programs would be used to fund the national deployment of E-Verify and would also fund apprenticeship programs for U.S. citizen workers.

The “Dignity Program” would also include a work requirement, with exceptions available for those with dependents and the elderly. That would come along with an additional 1.5% tax levy, which is offset by an exemption from paying FICA taxes (social security, Medicare), as “Dignity Program” beneficiaries would be banned from receiving any federal benefits.

Once a person completes the 7-year “Dignity Program,” they’d have two options. First, they could apply for a “Dignity Visa,” giving them permission to remain in the United States for 5 years. Those who complete the “Dignity Program” could keep renewing this status for the rest of their lives, so long as they don’t violate any of its conditions.

Second, a person could apply for a 5-year “Redemption Program”. If (and only if) the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has certified that the border is “secure”—defined as a Border Patrol detection and apprehension rate of 90%—before the end of that five year period, then the person could pursue a green card through the program if they meet additional requirementsAccording to a 2022 DHS report, the Border Patrol’s “observational apprehension rate” mostly fluctuated between 75-80% from 2010 to 2020.

Under the “Redemption Program,” a person would also have to continue to check in with DHS every two years. They would also have to either pay an additional $5,000 or complete 200 hours of community service, as well as pass an English and a civics test. Only once that is complete would they become eligible to apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status to obtain a green card. Once a person obtains LPR status, they will later be able to apply for U.S. citizenship.

What other paths to legal status would the bill create?

The bill would create at least three other broad paths to legal status for undocumented immigrants in the United States, including both undocumented youth and those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The bill largely adopts DREAM Act and the American Promise Act in full, creating a path to LPR status for individuals who have been residing continuously in the U.S. for at least three years and who (1) had TPS status as of March 8, 2021, or (2) who came to the United States before age 18. These bills alone are estimated to provide a path to legal status for at least 2.7 million people.

Those who arrived before age 18 would have obtain a college or graduate degree, serve in the military for at least 3 years, or be employed and working for at least four years, as well as learn English and pass a civics test.

The bill also adopts provisions from the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that would create a path to permanent status for at least one million farmworkers who have worked for years around the country. To obtain LPR status under these provisions, those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for 10 years prior to the act’s passage would have to continue working in U.S. agriculture for an additional 4 years to obtain LPR status, or an additional 8 years for those with fewer than 10 years prior experience. During prior negotiations around this bill, some farmworker unions expressed concerns that this latter requirement could lead to exploitation.

What changes to border enforcement and asylum would the bill make?

The bill would supercharge border enforcement through a significant increase in funding to border authorities. Among other things, the bill would provide over $18 billion for border barriers through 2031 (the Trump administration spent $15 billion in four years), nearly $7 billion to be spent on border infrastructure (including Border Patrol stations and surveillance technology) through 2027, 3,000 new Border Patrol agents, $10 billion for port of entry modernization, and nearly 500 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) support staff and attorneys. The Border Patrol would also be given significant legal impunity, as DHS would be authorized to waive all laws impacting the “operation” of border infrastructure.

The bill’s largest change would be the creation of “humanitarian campuses” where asylum seekers would be taken after apprehension. These campuses would be staffed by multiple federal agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations, social workers, case managers, and legal support, and would purportedly be less carceral than family detention centers, although families would still not be permitted to leave.

At these “humanitarian campuses,” migrants seeking asylum would be given 72 hours to rest, then provided a legal orientation and then a credible fear interview within the first 15 days. If they pass the credible fear interview, they would be given a full asylum interview by an asylum officer within 45 days, who could grant asylum to any migrant who is eligible.

Unlike the similar Biden administration pilot program, those denied asylum by an asylum officer would not be automatically referred to immigration judges. Instead, the only method of appealing a denial would be to request review from a different asylum officer. If that second officer also denied asylum, the person could be immediately deported with no further court review possible. Unlike the current process, asylum seekers would not be guaranteed the right to see a judge, either immigration or federal..

Only if an asylum officer determined that a person’s asylum case was “complex or uncertain,” or if the person met the definition of a “vulnerable population,” would a person be eligible to be released from the humanitarian campus and allowed to apply for asylum in normal removal proceedings. Anyone released this way would be required to wear a “GPS wrist tracker” and check in with ICE telephonically once a week.

The bill does provide that anyone in these centers can have access to counsel, and even incentivizes lawyers to come work there by providing that any lawyer who works at a humanitarian campus for 4 years can have 75% of their federal law school student loans forgiven.

What changes does the bill make to immigration enforcement?

Along with these structural changes to legal immigration and the border, the bill would mandate E-Verify be used across the country, with severe penalties for employers that do not adopt the program or fail to verify the immigration status of their workers. These provisions largely mirror the ones included in the House’s recent border bill.

The bill would also create a whole host of new immigration-related crimes, and significantly expand current penalties. For example, the bill would create a new crime of “illicit spotting” for those helping migrants evade Border Patrol, create a new “asylum fraud” crime, expand the maximum penalty for assisting illegal entry from 10 years to 20 years in prison, and expand the maximum penalty for illegal reentry after removal from 2 years to 10 years in prison. The bill would also create a new “gang”-related ground of inadmissibility and deportability that could be used on any group of 25 or more people that DHS designates as a “criminal gang.”

What changes to legal immigration would the bill make?

Beyond new paths to status for undocumented immigrants, the bill would also make a number of changes to the legal immigration system, several of which are aimed at eliminating lengthy visa backlogs. It adopts multiple provisions from Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act,” including capping visa backlogs at a maximum of 10 years, doubling per-country caps on visas from 7% to 15%, eliminating “age-outs” which create “documented dreamers,” and exempting spouses and children of visa beneficiaries from counting towards annual visa totals.

The bill would also create- a new path for asylum seekers to come to the United States through asylum pre-screening centers in the Western Hemisphere. Applicants going to one of those centers could obtain a “W visa” if they could provide “overwhelming evidence” that they would qualify for asylum if in the United States. These visas would be capped at the annual refugee determination level.

In addition, the bill makes significant changes to the H-2A and H-2B visa programs for temporary workers. For H-2A visas, some of the changes include the creation of an electronic platform for H-2A visas, removal of seasonality requirements for H-2A visas, expanding H-2A visas to new industries, and allowing portable H-2A status for up to 10,000 H-2A workers. For H-2B visas, some of the changes include expanding the definition of a “returning worker,” requiring safe workplaces, and increasing sanctions for fraud.

Finally, the bill addresses backlog reduction as well, providing $2.56 billion for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services backlog reduction, $825 million for the State Department, and $225 million for the Department of Labor.

What’s next?

After the bill’s introduction, it remains unclear whether it will make it to the House Floor. Regardless of whether it becomes law or not, and even though there’s a lot to like and dislike on both sides, it’s worth highlighting the fact that there are still good-faith efforts to reach a compromise on a subject that desperately needs one.

This post originally appeared on Immigration Impact Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is Policy Counsel at the American Immigration Council, where he works primarily on immigration court issues and the intersection of immigration law and policy. He previously worked as a Staff Attorney at the Council, working on impact litigation, Freedom of Information Act litigations, and practice advisories. Prior to joining the Council, he was an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow placed as a Staff Attorney at the Immigration Law Unit of The Legal Aid Society in New York City, representing immigrants placed in removal proceedings because of a prior criminal conviction. Aaron holds a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in Politics and East Asian Studies from Brandeis University.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.