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Bipartisan border reform isn't easy. Rep. Escobar's bill is a start.

By Houston Chronicle Editorial Board

About a hundred miles due east of El Paso, at the foot of the majestic Guadalupe Mountains, is a vast salt flat. Centuries ago, Spanish settlers along the Rio Grande near today’s El Paso organized ox trains to mine the salt and haul it back home for cooking and food preservation. (Salineros, they were called.) These days, according to the few remaining residents of the ghost town called Salt Flat, foolhardy drivers sometimes veer off U.S. Highway 62 onto the glistening surface, assuming it’s a Texas version of Bonneville Salt Flats, the hard salt plain in Utah made for speed records. 

It’s not. Within 50 yards, the unlucky driver will be up to his axles in slushy, gray muck. A tow truck from El Paso is not cheap. 

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a third-term El Paso Democrat, in league with U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, has lately ventured onto the salt flat of American politics. She and Salazar are co-sponsors of the Dignity Act of 2023, an ambitious bipartisan package of legislation designed to reform our broken and unfair system of immigration. 

Their nearly 500-page bill, comprehensive and carefully crafted to address the concerns of both sides in our long-running immigration and border-security impasse, is a good starting point for people negotiating in good faith. Of course, the two sponsors may end up mired in the muck, just like their immigration-reform predecessors over the last four decades, but they deserve great credit for calling attention, yet again, to what can be done when lawmakers devote time and energy to engaging complex issues.

However unlikely the legislation’s passage, Escobar told the editorial board she feels a sense of urgency that stems from knowing that her El Paso constituents are on “the front lines of the greatest challenges we face when it comes to immigration.” Those challenges have included record high numbers of unauthorized crossings. The numbers, Escobar says, have resulted in Border Patrol personnel who seem to be suffering from PTSD because of “the humanitarian catastrophe they’re being asked to manage,” as well as exhausted and overwhelmed volunteers working in shelters and local officials under stress. (Although the number of unauthorized crossings is at its lowest since February 2021, Escobar’s constituents can anticipate increases again because of many people are still crossing into Mexico.)   

Escobar’s attempt at a solution (HR 3599) is divided into five sections, including an extensive border-security component. It authorizes at least $25 billion in funding to upgrade infrastructure and technology along the border and at ports of entry. An upgraded system would include physical barriers and barrier levees but not, she emphasizes, a border wall.

The bill would establish facilities along the southern border that the congresswomen are calling “campuses” (perhaps fending off concerns by human rights advocates that they could become internment “camps”). Escobar, who noted that many of her Republican colleagues prefer incarceration, emphasizes that migrants would be detained in these facilities, managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for no more than 60 days while asylum officers adjudicate their claims. They would have access to legal counsel, medical staff, licensed social workers, mental health professionals, child advocates and private organizations that provide humanitarian assistance. 

To discourage long, dangerous treks to the border, the bill would establish five facilities in Latin America for in-country processing. Migrants would be pre-screened for asylum and have the opportunity to apply for guest-worker visas or assess their eligibility for other legal pathways.

Incorporating a version of the Dream Act, the bill would allow young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to obtain conditional legal status. It also establishes a seven-year deferred action program that would grant employment and travel authorization to undocumented residents who have been continuously in the U.S. for at least five years before the bill was enacted. 

Participants would be required to pay a $5,000 fine, check in with the Department of Homeland Security every two years, remain in good public standing and, among other requirements, contribute to the American Worker Fund. The fund, designed to preempt concerns about migrants taking jobs from U.S. citizens, would assist citizens looking for work or transitioning to different careers. Completion of another five-year program that requires English and U.S. civics proficiency in addition to another $5,000 or 200 hours of community service would make them eligible to apply for permanent residency and a green card, which can cost thousands more dollars and take decades to adjudicate. Again, the concept is a starting point even if the details need work.

We were glad to see that the bill also creates a more efficient agricultural worker program and mandates E-Verify for employers. That's a key part of the comprehensive immigration reform we've long advocated for.

The bill requires the secretary of state to develop a four-year strategy to tackle the root causes of migrants streaming out of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The focus would be on strengthening the rule of law, tackling poverty and confronting gang violence, while expanding the investigation and prosecution of human smuggling and trafficking networks.

One of the strongest aspects of the bill is that it streamlines paths to citizenship and expedites visa processing to reduce backlogs. It also addresses the major issue of brain drain by offering a long-term legal path to people with doctoral degrees in STEM fields. 

“One of the things I’ve heard from my Republican colleagues over and over is, we can’t expand legal pathways until we secure the border,” Escobar told the editorial board. “What I point out frequently is, that’s all we’ve been doing — 37 years, that’s all we’ve been doing. There needs to come a time for the country to recognize that the Republican approach on border security is an expensive failure.” 

Escobar emphasizes that it’s up to Congress to fix the immigration and border-security mess, not the executive branch. “My point is congressional inaction has consequence, and the consequence is dire,” she says. “Congress can no longer sit on its hands.”

Congressional action at this point means healthy debate about important details. Here’s a basic question worth debating, for example: Is the bill fair, on the one hand, to immigrants and citizens who “follow the rules,” while providing, on the other, a pathway to citizenship that isn’t so expensive, laborious and lengthy that no immigrant would even try? 

With oversized tires, four-wheel drive and an experienced person behind the wheel, it may be possible to skim over the West Texas salt flats. With experienced lawmakers, sincere in their efforts and open to compromise, it may be possible to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Unlikely? Of course, but at the very least, the Dignity Act highlights the dignity of public service. The two congresswomen offer a stark contrast to elected officials such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with his careless invasion-of-Mexico talk or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott with his ridiculous Rio Grande buoys and heartless razor wire. With their penchant for exploiting a serious issue for political ends, the two governors show us they’re unserious about doing the people’s work. Escobar and Salazar, like the salineros of centuries past, bring much needed seasoning to a nation longing for leadership.  

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