Salazar’s ‘Dignity Act’ a good start, but security must precede legalization

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Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) may be the only Republican who has ever introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill with major legalization programs. She calls it, “the Dignity Act,” and says it would secure our border, provide a dignified solution for undocumented immigrants, and support American workers.

And she applied take-aways she got from studying the last comprehensive immigration reform bill to be enacted with such expansive legalization programs, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986.

The first take-away is that only a third of the almost 3 million undocumented immigrants the IRCA legalized actually became citizens: the other 2 million were content to have a legal status that allowed them to live and work in the United States without fear of being deported.

Consequently, the bill’s major legalization program does not start out with a grant of lawful permanent resident status. It provides temporary legal status that just permits participants to live and work in the United States without fear of being deported. Then, after being in the program for 10 years, participants would be offered a choice between continuing temporary status indefinitely and a five-year program that would lead to permanent resident status.

Her other take-away is that the failure to implement IRCA’s border security and enforcement provisions permitted the undocumented population to grow out of control again.

Unfortunately, she didn’t go far enough with her attempt to deal with this problem, and this is likely to prevent her bill from being passed. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, IRCA’s legalization programs were supposed to be a one-time measure that would deal with illegal immigration by “wiping the slate clean” and implementing border security and enforcement measures that would prevent a new group of undocumented immigrants from taking the place of the ones who were legalized.

The legalization programs were established right away, but the border security and enforcement measures were never implemented. The 2.7 million undocumented immigrants that IRCA legalized were replaced by a new group of more than 5 million undocumented immigrants within 10 years.

Many Republicans will refuse to support another legalization program with a promise of border security and interior enforcement measures without assurance that this time the legalization programs will not be implemented until after the border security and enforcement measures have been shown to be working. They want the next legalization program to be the last.

And the Dignity Act would provide temporary legal status for 10 years before the Border Patrol would be required to determine whether the Act’s border security measures have been implemented successfully.

Dignity Program

This 10-year program would provide temporary legal status, work authorization, and protection from removal for immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years.

At the end of the 10-year period, participants would be given the option of receiving an indefinitely renewable five-year “Dignity Visa” which would maintain their work authorizations and legal status, or of participating in a five-year “Redemption Program.”

The Redemption Program requires participants, among other things, to learn English and U.S. civics and make contributions to the American Worker Fund or complete 200 hours of community service.

Successful completion of the Redemption Program would make participants eligible to adjust their status to that of a lawful permanent resident, which provides a path to citizenship.

But no participant would receive a Dignity Visa or be allowed to register for the Redemption Program until the sector chiefs for all of the Border Patrol Sectors on the Southwest Border have certified that their sectors are apprehending at least 90 percent of the detected illegal crossers in their sectors.

This means that the Dignity Program would be implemented 10 years before border security is certified. Moreover, the Dignity Act has two other legalization programs that also would be implemented before border security is certified.

Dream Act — Dreamers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients would be eligible for conditional permanent resident status and protection from deportation for 10 years if they arrived before July 4, 2016, and were younger than 18 years old when they entered the United States. The conditional status would be adjusted to that of a lawful permanent resident if they remain in the U.S. and obtain a college or graduate degree, serve at least three years in the military, or are employed and working for four years. They also must satisfy basic English requirements and demonstrate an understanding of U.S. history and civics.

American Promise Act — This would authorize the attorney general to adjust the status of immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status to that of a lawful permanent resident if they have been continuously present in the U.S. for five years and held TPS status on July 4, 2016, or held DED status as of Jan. 20, 2021.

Bottom line

It is unrealistic to expect significant Republican support for the Dignity Act if it isn’t revised to require meaningful certification of border security before its legalization programs are implemented.

And apprehension rates are not an appropriate metric for determining whether the border has been secured.

CBP apprehended 1.7 million illegal border crossers at the Southwest land border in fiscal 2021, which was the highest number of illegal crossings recorded in any fiscal year since the government began tracking illegal crossings in 1960.

Under the Dignity Act’s certification standard, the Southwest border could have been certified as being secure if those figures represented 90 percent of the detected crossings. I think that would be absurd. And I think most Americans would agree.

The other problem Salazar faces is that USCIS would not be able to process the legalization applications the Dignity Act would generate.

As of the end of fiscal 2021, USCIS had a backlog of 8 million applications. Despite a nationwide labor shortage in critical industries, more than a million immigrants are waiting eight months to a year for USCIS to process their work permit applications.

Salazar should consider modifying her bill to eliminate these problems.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow his blog at

Tags Border control Border enforcement deferred action for childhood arrivals Dignity Act DREAM Act Illegal immigration Immigration Reform and Control Act Immigration to the United States legalization Maria Elvira Salazar Temporary protected status

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