CHICAGO — Of all the details yet to be negotiated in order to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, the one that really shouldn’t stir controversy is the possibility of some immigrants facing a very long wait for citizenship, or not getting it at all.
The point seems like a walk in the park compared to some of the others that will require a bureaucratic overload of regulations.
For instance, look at President Obama‘s four-pillar framework for reform, which he says is designed to ensure that “everyone plays by the rules.” The bit about “cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers” will surely constitute a brick wall.
On the left, critics say they don’t trust the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement measures. They complain that the E-Verify system — which checks worker eligibility against Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases — is flawed, with few mechanisms for corrective action. And the right generally scoffs at the idea that private citizens who hire employees for “casual domestic labor” should be subject to such life-altering rules.
Yet, since a bipartisan Senate group and the president both presented their ideas on a compromise, the notion that once legal status is conferred immigrants would still have to step to the “back of the line” to await citizenship has become a major point of contention.
Immigrant advocates say that any deal without full citizenship as part of the package will create a “permanent underclass” and bemoan that should citizenship become an option, it is unfair to make people go through a process that, according to some estimates, could take 20 to 30 or more years.
As one young woman told the radio show “Latino USA” last week — and I’ve heard this over and over again — “Is it fair for [undocumented immigrants] to have to wait four decades before they’re even part of our country?”
Whoa, who said anything about not being part of the country?
The very fact that the nation’s political leaders are now considering a mass legalization is a testament to the fact that these immigrants are considered an undeniable part of our country’s fabric.
It’s really stunning how — depending on what demand an immigrant advocacy group wants to press — the narrative of what it means to be American can do 180-degree turns.
To some, nothing short of taking the citizenship oath will adequately empower immigrants.
Legal permanent residents in this country enjoy so many freedoms, protections and benefits that the only way to tell them apart from naturalized citizens comes down to who can vote and who can’t.
My family has both citizens and legal residents. And none of the non-citizens in our clan have significantly less love for the United States, much less the opportunity to work or access safety net programs, than their relatives who are citizens.
Yes, long waits stink, but so what? This didn’t stop my grandmother, who was well into her senior years when she took her oath. And it didn’t faze the 117-year-old Turkish woman who was naturalized in 1997, becoming the oldest new U.S. citizen in history. Long “lines” are a bummer but certainly not the end of the world.
And here’s a news flash — not everyone wants citizenship. Mexicans make up the largest group of unlawfully present immigrants and yet, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly two-thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico actively choose not to naturalize even though they’re eligible.
Now, if you want to hear about how unimportant citizenship status can be, go read the Define American movement’s website. Started by Jose Antonio Vargas, a former journalist who became an activist after admitting he’s been living in the U.S. illegally, the premise is that being American is all about what’s in the heart and mind.
In a recent blog post, guest contributor Monica Novoa writes, “Migration in these United States is not about borders and a vague notion of ‘immigrants’; it is about building families, building businesses, and building a thriving and wonderfully diverse active citizenry, which will continue to strengthen our country through the 21st century.”
If that’s true, we are indeed at a special inflection point. All the activities Novoa mentioned can become a reality if compromise on citizenship — or its time frame — isn’t tanked by those who’d have us believe that America’s fruits can only be savored as a full citizen.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and NBC Latino Contributor.