New immigration bill: Best hope for ‘dignity’ or a long, costly path?

Introduced by Republican Maria Elvira Salazar of Miami, the measure allows undocumented immigrants to stay but only under conditions that critics call unacceptable.
The Republican-sponsored Dignity Act would require payments totaling $20,000, spread over 10 years, from farmworker Rocio Macedonio, left, and her husband, Isaias, a construction worker. They are living illegally in the U.S., where all four of their sons — including 8-year-old Isaias Jr. —  were born. The children are U.S. citizens.
The Republican-sponsored Dignity Act would require payments totaling $20,000, spread over 10 years, from farmworker Rocio Macedonio, left, and her husband, Isaias, a construction worker. They are living illegally in the U.S., where all four of their sons — including 8-year-old Isaias Jr. — were born. The children are U.S. citizens. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published March 1, 2022|Updated March 2, 2022

TAMPA — It’s called the Dignity Act and it would provide legal status to many of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Miami and co-sponsored by half a dozen of her fellow Republicans, the bill represents a rare attempt to tackle a national concern that has only grown in recent decades.

But the measure has failed to attract widespread support so far, in part because of conditions it sets and limits it places on who would be eligible. Democrats who control Congress, as well as President Joe Biden, have introduced their own more-sweeping immigration plans and they, too, have hit roadblocks.

Meantime, many among the 11 million continue to wonder whether they can ever emerge from the shadows.

“Everyone wants to know if there’s something new,” said Isaret Jeffers, a human rights activist and immigrant from Mexico who visits twice a week with farmworkers in Plant City, many of them here illegally. “We always end up saying the same thing: Don’t give up hope.”

The Salazar bill would allow undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years to stay and work here without the threat of deportation. It also offers them a path to citizenship, but it’s a long one: They couldn’t apply for permanent residency and a green card — required before seeking citizenship — for at least 15 years.

Eligible immigrants must register with the government, then the clock starts ticking. They have 10 years to “get right with the law,” Salazar said — pass a criminal background check, work or serve as a family caregiver, and pay taxes as well as a special 2 percent levy to fund border security and an electronic identification system.

At the end of the 10 years, eligible immigrants can remain in the country as temporary workers under a renewable visa or enroll in what’s called the Redemption Program — the bill’s path to citizenship. They would have five years to learn English and U.S. civics and do local volunteer work or national community service or contribute additional money to a worker training program. At that point, they could seek a green card.

Immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, nicknamed Dreamers, can get full legal status quicker if they earn a college degree, complete three years of service in the U.S. military or demonstrate they’ve been employed for at least four years.

Salazar, a former TV journalist and daughter of Cuban refugees, told the Tampa Bay Times her initiative is “the only reasonable immigration bill in Congress.”

“My community sent me to Washington, D.C., to fight for them, and I’m doing just that with my Dignity Act,” she said. “It is the right thing to do for my district, for our state, and for America.”

In addition to its focus on immigrants living in the United States, the bill contains provisions titled border security and enforcement and strengthening the American workforce and economy.

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The bill has the support of the Libre Initiative, a Washington-based organization that focuses on Hispanic voters and is affiliated with conservative billionaire Charles Koch.

People living in the U.S. illegally need to know “there must be some cost of breaking the law,” Daniel Garza, president of the Libre Initiative, told the Times.

Allian Collazo of St. Petersburg, who works in grassroots operations for the organization, said, “The Dignity Act … is carefully crafted to address the primary immigration challenges facing us today.”

It’s “a big step in the right direction” for undocumented immigrants, said Eli González, founder and president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Pinellas County.

“The Dignity Act affords them the peace of mind that, if they do what citizens in this country are asked to do — obey the law and pay their taxes — the government will accept them,” González said. “They would no longer have to dread the feeling that they could get deported.”

The measure is humane and fair, said Simón Canasí, 65, a retired bank executive who was named Hispanic Man of the Year in 2019 by the Tampa Hispanic Heritage Committee.

“I have long held that, as long as illegal immigrants work hard to achieve the American dream and obey and respect our laws, they should be given a fair path to being legal permanent residents,” Canasí said.

Jeffers, the human rights activist, sees no progress for undocumented immigrants in the conditions, limitations and fees established in the Dignity Act.

“We are vulnerable families and workers with a very low salary,” said Jeffers, founder of the farmworker advocacy organization Colectivo Árbol. “This bill is far away from giving us dignity.”

That view is echoed by Cirenio Cervantes, 27, a so-called Dreamer who works with Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants and others living in poverty.

“Any talks on immigration should include provisions on family reunification and a pathway to citizenship for all those that call this country their home,” said Cervantes, who came from Mexico and lives in Mulberry.

Farmworker Rocio Macedonio, 43, has a practical concern with the proposed legislation: She said she and her husband cannot afford to pay the required $1,000 per year each during the 10-year “Dignity” program. Their total payout would amount to $20,000.

Macedonio and her husband, Isaias, 44, a construction worker, came illegally from Mexico 24 years ago. They live in a Lithia mobile home with their four sons, 8 to 21, all of whom are U.S. citizens by birth.

“It’s simple: We are not rich,” Macedonio said. “We don’t have savings. We live paycheck to paycheck.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, co-sponsored the Democratic immigration measures that have stalled in Congress, called the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Castor had no comment on the Dignity Act, instead urging passage of her party’s own measures in the politically divided Senate.

“I urge Floridians and colleagues in Congress to press the U.S. Senate to help move this legislation across the finish line,” Castor said in an email to the Times, “to benefit families and companies that need talented workers and a country that depends upon secure borders.”