WASHINGTON, D.C. (WGHP) – Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) took a valiant swing at immigration reform last December, and now one of his fellow North Carolinians – Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) – is part of a new bipartisan effort at addressing this issue.

Manning is one of seven sponsors of the so-called “Dignity Act of 2023,” which her announcement calls the “first serious bipartisan immigration solution proposed by Congress in over a decade.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro)

She joins Reps. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), the bill’s primary authors – along with Jenniffer Gonzales (R-Puerto Rico), Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Oregon), Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) and Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) – in sponsoring the bill, which they say will address border security, asylum case backlogs, address economic needs and the future of the children born to illegal immigrants while in America, otherwise known as Dreamers.

“I’ve seen the flaws in America’s immigration system. As Congresswoman, I’ve met with countless business leaders who have shared their concerns that our outdated system hinders their ability to attract and retain talent,” Manning, who represents the 6th Congressional District, said in a statement released by her office. “I’m proud to join Representatives Salazar and Escobar to introduce the bipartisan Dignity Act, a historic immigration reform bill that will address the country’s workforce needs and strengthen our economy, provide pathways to citizenship for Dreamers and asylum seekers and secure the border.

“When passed, this once-in-a-generation legislation will provide the first meaningful immigration reform our nation has seen in decades.” 

Sen. Thom Tillis

Tillis and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) led an effort late in the 2022 session to try to pass the “framework” that Tillis said was necessary before a bill could be drafted. CBS News reported that their efforts included “a path to permanent legal status to ‘Dreamers,’ or unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, a longtime Democratic priority” and … “increasing the salaries of Border Patrol agents and bolstering their ranks, providing additional funds to the Department of Homeland Security for detention facilities and deportations and enacting additional penalties for migrants who do not attend their court hearings.”

The bill backed by Manning also follows a bill the GOP-led House recently passed, but Salazar and Escobar told The Hill that see their bill as having a better chance at success.

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) joins (from left) Republican delegate of Puerto Rico Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (left), Republican Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) to introduce legislation on immigration reform on Wednesday. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Dignity Act describes a system to repair the asylum and immigration systems by charging undocumented workers a “dignity levy” of 1.5% that allows them to pay for immigration services, including border security.

The bill includes the controversial path to citizenship for Dreamers, and it addresses the programs that the agricultural industry and other businesses require to maintain a workforce.

The 7-year Dignity Program is designed for undocumented workers already in the country who do not have a criminal record to work and travel outside the country freely for a $700-a-year fee, meaning they each would pay $5,000 for that opportunity. Their payroll taxes drop from 7% to 1.5%, and they won’t have to pay for any government programs for which they are not eligible.

There also is a 5-year Redemption Program that follows the Dignity Program and that would lead to citizenship. That costs another $5,000, and it would grant citizenship only after the Government Accountability Office determines the border has remained secure for a year.

The bill’s sponsors say these steps help solve critical labor shortages and give U.S. employers the ability to fill the millions of job vacancies that remain open, such as in the agriculture and construction industries. The bill also addresses H-2A, the seasonal agricultural visa and expands that program to include employers such as the dairy industry and forestry.

Salazar told The Hill that the billions raised through the dignity fees would be used to fund border security, and the 1.5% payroll tax would pay for worker training, which, she told The Hill, means “no one can say the undocumented are stealing anything away from you.”

If you care about border security, this bill projects to generate $25 billion, to mandate E-verify for all businesses, to construct physical barriers and install technology at the border, to hire more border agents, to invest in tracking drugs and human/child-sex traffickers, and to designate Mexican cartels as Special Transnational Criminal Organizations and more.

If you care about the asylum process, the bill would expedite processing, end catch-and-release, establish humanitarian campuses for families and require cases to be decided within 60 days.

The bill does not specifically address facilities such as the planned Greensboro Influx Care Facility, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contracted to open at the former American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, within Manning’s district.

She has been active in seeking reports about the facility, but nothing much has happened because of an ongoing contract dispute. This facility is scheduled to host unaccompanied children between the ages of 13 and 17 years old – about 800 at the peak, officials have said – who would spend about two to three weeks housed at the facility.

Salazar proposed a similar bill in 2021, and Escobar represents a district that includes El Paso, which has been under siege in recent months.

Some members of the House told The Hill that they were surprised by the bill, saying, “The bill comes out of nowhere.”

Manning’s spokesperson said their office is getting a lot of interest “from media and congressional colleagues about the specifics of the bill.

“This is the first meaningful bipartisan immigration bill that has been introduced in the House in a decade so there is a lot of curiosity,” Hailey Barringer said in response to questions from WGHP. “Rep. Manning and the other bill sponsors are meeting with the various caucuses in Congress to present the bill and answer questions from their colleagues. The sponsors are working to get more of their colleagues to sign onto the legislation, thereby building support for it.”

Here are the specific provisions

Border security

  • Provides $25 billion to fully secure the border.
  • Mandates 100% nationwide E-verify to ensure all American businesses are hiring legal workers.
  • Achieves operational control and advantage of the Southern Border by employing a comprehensive Southern Border Strategy.
  • Constructs enhanced physical barriers and deploys the most up-to-date technology at the border.
  • Hires thousands of new Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and border intelligence units.
  • Implements new policies to stop criminals crossing the border illegally, including new authorities to track cartel spotters, and raises penalties on human traffickers and child sex traffickers.
  • Authorizes DHS to officially designate an organization as a criminal street gang, making any alien involved in a criminal gang inadmissible and deportable.
  • Designates Mexican cartels as Special Transnational Criminal Organizations.
  • Directs DHS to complete and implement biometric exits at all air, land, and seaports of entry for international travelers.
  • Provides DHS the authority to use DNA testing to verify family relationships.
  • Enhances port-of-entry security by expanding surveillance and intrusion detection systems.
  • Improves legal commerce and trade by expanding inspection lanes and investing in X-ray technology to safely inspect commercial vehicles.

Asylum system

  • Expedites processing and ends catch-and-release policies.
  • Establishes at least five Humanitarian Campuses (HC) that will receive individuals and families arriving at the southern border for immediate processing.
  • Asylum-seekers will remain at an HC until their case is decided. They will have freedom of movement within the HC, access to state-of-the-art facilities, medical personnel, legal counsel, and non-governmental organizations.
  • Decides asylum cases within 60 days. Asylum-seekers will undergo an initial credible fear interview within 15 days of their arrival and further screening by trained asylum officers for final determination within an additional 45 days. Complex cases may be referred to case management to await a hearing before an Immigration Judge.
  • Creates five additional immigration centers in Latin America to stop migrant caravans and prevent individuals from making the dangerous land journey to the United States.
  • The centers will offer asylum pre-screening, child reunification services, and employment counsel to determine eligibility for work visas in the United States.
  • Implements a security and development strategy to address instability in Central America. This will help bring stability and economic development to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
  • Increases U.S. authorities to target transnational criminals, smugglers, human traffickers, drug traffickers, and gangs like MS-13.
  • Cracks down on asylum fraud by increasing penalties for those that make false statements or provide false documentation.
  • Establishes a new two-strike policy for anyone caught crossing at a non-port-of-entry, to ensure legitimate asylum seekers are processed appropriately while bad actors are apprehended. 

Dignity and redemption

  • Creates immediate protected status and streamlined path for Dreamers and TPS recipients, as outlined in the Dream and Promise Act.
  • Establishes the Dignity Program, a practical solution for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years.
  • Recipients will be offered a chance to work, pay restitution, get right with the law, and earn legal status.
  • Applicants must comply with all federal and state laws, pass a criminal background check, and pay outstanding taxes or debts.
  • Dignity participants will also pay $5,000 in restitution during the seven years of the program, check in with DHS every two years, and remain in good public standing.
  • Individuals in the Dignity Program will not have access to federal means-tested benefits or entitlements
  • Establishes two options after successful completion of the Dignity Program:
    • Dignity Status: Dignity recipients who choose this option will immediately receive a 5-year Dignity Status, which provides full work authorization, the ability to live in the U.S., and travel authorization outside the U.S. They will also remain ineligible for citizenship, means-tested benefits, and entitlements. Dignity Status can be renewed an indefinite number of times as long as the individual remains in good standing with the law.
    • Redemption Program: The Redemption Program (5-plus years) requires completion of the 7-year Dignity Program. It offers Dignity recipients a chance to redeem themselves and earn permanent legal status. Redemption Program participants must learn English and U.S. civics and contribute to their local community either through community service or an additional $5,000 in restitution payments. Successful completion of the Redemption Program provides legal permanent resident status and eligibility for existing pathways to citizenship. Participating individuals would go to the back of the line.

Employment plan

  • Creates a new American Worker Fund, using restitution payments from the Dignity and Redemption Programs. This fund will provide workforce training, upskilling, and education for unemployed American workers.
  • For every participant in the Dignity Program, their restitution payments will be able to train or retrain at least one American worker.
  • The American Worker Fund provides grants for workforce education initiatives, apprenticeship programs, higher education, and Career and Technical Education to give opportunities for Americans to enter new careers. This will ensure Americans can secure employment in in-demand careers.

Agricultural program

  • Streamlines the H-2A application process by allowing employers to file with relevant agencies in a single platform, reducing regulatory burden for farmers and businesses.
  • Creates a year-round Agricultural workforce, removing “seasonal” requirements on the H-2A program and expanding it to year-round labor.
  • Combats price hikes so families can access affordable groceries and a large variety of U.S.-based produce.
  • Repeals the complicated and unpredictable Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) formula to calculate wages for farmers set by the Department of Labor. It replaces it with either 125% of the federal minimum wage or the applicable state/local minimum wage.
  • Allows staggered entry for advanced planning so employers can have workers start at different dates of the year to meet their specific needs.
  • Opens the H2A program to apple cider pressing on farms, aquaculture, the equine industry, forestry activities, conservation, forest management, and wild fish and shellfish processors.
  • Includes special procedures and regulations for shepherding and goat herding, shearing, beekeeping, and custom combining.
  • Creates a Certified Agricultural Workers (CAW) program, as established in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, with renewable 5.5-year visas available only to undocumented workers that have been working in agriculture for several years previously.
  • Foreign workers could apply for lawful permanent residence (LPR) after successfully maintaining either eight years of CAW status or four years of CAW status plus ten years of previous agricultural work experience in addition to making restitution payments and paying owed back taxes.
  • Includes the Returning Worker Exception Act, which Reforms the H-2B program by exempting returning workers from the visa caps of the three previous fiscal years. It also improves the H-2B application process, requiring the DOL to maintain a publicly accessible online job registry, and strengthening program integrity measures and anti-fraud provisions to protect American workers and guest workers.

Improving the process

  • Modernizes our legal immigration system and fixes backlogs.
  • Cuts the legal immigration backlog at ten years, ensuring anyone that has been waiting for a legal visa (either family-based or employment-based) for ten years or more (calculated by priority date) will be provided with that visa.
    Raises the per-country cap set in the Immigration Act of 1990 from 7% to 15%.
  • Allows STEM Ph.D. graduates from American universities, including medical students, to be eligible for an O visa. This allows “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement” to stay and work in the U.S. if they choose to.
  • Increases high-skilled employment visas opportunities by only counting the principal applicant and excluding derivatives (children and spouses) from counting towards the annual Employment-Based visa caps. It does not raise the caps.
  • Includes the H-4 Work Authorization Act, allowing spouses of H-1B immigrants to automatically be granted work authorization upon receiving their H-4 visa.
  • Includes the American Families United Act, which authorizes discretion if an undocumented child or spouse of a U.S. citizen is denied a visa or has received a deportation order, affording families relief on a case-by-case basis.
  • Includes the Temporary Family Visitation Act, which creates a new, 90-day visitor visa that can be used by foreigners to travel to the United States for business, pleasure, or family purposes.
  • Ensures that children legally present in the United States do not age out of receiving certain visas due to USCIS processing delays.
    Requires students working in the United States as part of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to pay FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes.
  • Modernizes student visas by changing the F visa to be “dual intent.”
  • Creates an Immigration Agency Coordinator position to oversee and streamline immigration functions at USCIS, the State Department, and the Department of Labor.
  • Surges resources to USCIS operations, the Bureau of Consular Affairs and Visa Service at the State Department, and the Office of Foreign Labor Certification at DOL to reduce delays and improve visa processing.

No cost to taxpayers

  • The border infrastructure, improved ports of entry infrastructure, new humanitarian campuses, increased personnel, and all other associated costs in this bill are paid for by an “Immigration Infrastructure Levy.”
  • A 1.5% levy will be deducted from the paychecks of individuals given work authorization under the Dignity Program. These levies will be deposited into the Immigration Infrastructure Fund to be used to carry out the provisions of this act.
  • The American Worker Fund, used to provide workforce development for American workers, will be funded by restitution payments from the Dignity and Redemption Programs.