Legalization Without Citizenship Can’t Be In Immigration Reform


This is the second article in Pat Young’s series on what should not be in an immigration reform proposal.

I have been working on immigration reform for thirty years. For the first half of that time, conservatives and liberals alike, whatever their view of the number of immigrants allowed in yearly, were always in favor of moving immigrants quickly towards citizenship. Learning English, studying American civics, and swearing allegiance to the United States were bipartisan goals of immigration policy. In 1986, when Ronald Reagan gave an amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants, he offered them a clear pathway to citizenship after a comparatively brief probationary period.

Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, as conservatives abandoned the Reagan immigration legacy, they increasingly pressed legislation that would choke off legal immigration and replace it with various temporary schemes that would allow people from other countries to come to the United States, perform work that profited U.S. corporations, and then would force them to leave without ever allowing them a pathway to citizenship.
Recently, as talk of immigration reform has again made its way onto the national agenda, conservatives are saying that any legalization of the undocumented should be purely temporary and not offer a way to become a citizen. House Republicans just passed such a proposal in the so-called ACHIEVE Act, which seems to resemble the DREAM Act to give legal status to young people but which does not offer permanent residence or citizenship. This approach is just wrong, both for the immigrants and for the country.

Let’s be honest. While conservatives say they favor “no path to citizenship” so as not to reward the undocumented for being in the country without authorization, in fact, they favor it because it will prevent the newly legalized from ever voting. Giving work permits to the undocumented would seem, under the conservatives’ logic, to be “rewarding them” for being here as much as providing a pathway to citizenship would be.

Not giving the newly legalized a path to citizenship may help some Americans. It helps corporations that want to exploit immigrant workers without fear that these immigrants will soon become citizens with all the attendant rights. It helps the politicians who need to both feed business’s need for immigrant labor and appease anti-immigrant constituents while immunizing themselves at the polls from a revolt by immigrant voters.
The “no pathway to citizenship” approach hurts local communities because the immigrants’ voices will not be heard if they can’t vote. It hurts housing markets because people with temporary status rarely put down roots and buy homes. It hurts the American-born children of the people with temporary status because their parents will always be preparing for the day they have to return to their home country and never make the psychological adjustment that new citizens make when they commit to living in the United States.

Legalization without a pathway to citizenship is a recipe for the creation of a permanent underclass and should not be part of genuine immigration reform in 2013.

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