At last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration, Republicans expressed uneasiness at the prospect of citizenship for the undocumented. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) said, “People that came here illegally knowingly – I don’t think they should have a path to citizenship.” Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) wondered, “Are there options that we should consider, between the extremes of mass deportation and the pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully in the United States?”
These Republicans favor legalization only, as a compromise solution. Unfortunately legalization without citizenship is not a compromise, it is a cop-out. It flies in the face of good policy, sound strategy, and American values. A pathway to citizenship for the undocumented remains an essential component of comprehensive reform.
As San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro pointed out, the two “extremes” in the immigration debate are mass deportation versus open borders. A pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, coupled with increased border security, represents the middle ground. This approach is supported by the president and a bipartisan group of senators. Yet House Republicans seem inclined to reject any possibility of citizenship.
They’re making a mistake. Consider that if we were to legalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. – without granting them citizenship – we would create a permanent underclass. These people would be neither fully foreign nor fully American, which would hinder assimilation and social cohesion. While these “in-between” people would face discrimination due to their second-class status, the country would lose out on the myriad economic benefits of naturalization. It certainly would not be good for our democracy to institutionalize a caste of sub-citizens who could never vote nor participate fully in society.
Without supporting citizenship, Republicans will not solve their problems with Hispanics. Most likely, the question of what to do with the undocumented will simply keep coming up again and again. And as long as the problem is unresolved, the GOP will probably be blamed for it. House Republicans should recognize that besides being the right thing to do, it is in their party’s interest to offer a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
Then again, some GOP congressmen refuse to recognize reality. Labrador insists that undocumented immigrants don’t want citizenship. “They’re not clamoring for it,” he says, “It’s only the activists here in Washington D.C. who keep clamoring for it.” This idea would be laughable – considering the thousands of undocumented immigrants who have rallied nationwide in pursuit of citizenship – if Labrador were not a key figure in the House immigration debate. He is among the House leaders working on an immigration proposal to be unveiled shortly.
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-GA) called the idea of citizenship for the undocumented “toxic.” But a new Quinnipiac poll finds that 56 percent of the public believes the undocumented should stay and apply for citizenship. 30 percent believe the undocumented should go home. Only 10 percent believe they should stay and not receive citizenship. So House Republicans favor the option that is least popular among Americans.
Perhaps House Republicans fear that allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens will create a new generation of Democratic voters. If so, they are missing the bigger picture. The GOP will never have a shot at appealing to Latinos until the immigration issue is behind them. Labor unions, clergy leaders, business interests, and Hispanics all support citizenship. Now it’s time that House Republicans become part of the solution, rather than derail momentum for true reform.
House Republican efforts to paint a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented as “extreme” are misleading and inaccurate. Earned citizenship is the most mainstream, reasonable, and practical option for immigration reform. Anything less is unacceptable.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.