Immigration reform could rely on back roads to citizenship

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.


The campaign against immigration reform appears to be faltering. Only about 50 people showed up last week for an anti-immigration rally in Virginia featuring Representative Steve King, the Iowa Republican whose views on the subject range from bizarre to misleading. Meanwhile, since the start of the August recess, a few Republican House members have announced their support for some kind of comprehensive immigration reform.

This is good news. The key will be how exactly they define "support" _and, consequently, finding a legislative sweet spot that represents the minimum that Democrats will accept and the maximum that the Republican rank and file will tolerate.

The sticking point is legalization followed by citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. Republicans decry "amnesty" for the undocumented, while Democrats insist on a pathway to citizenship.

There will be no immigration reform without some kind of citizenship provision, which the bipartisan bill the Senate passed in June provides. Legalization with no chance of citizenship would create an official second class; nothing could be more un-American. But to overcome the objections of many in their own caucus, and the intransigent "no special pathway" rhetoric they've adopted, House Republican leaders may have to get creative.

The best option, of course, would be to adopt the Senate bill and accept the short-term political consequences on the anti-immigrant right. This seems unlikely, to put it charitably, and at any rate the lower chamber is historically and institutionally loath to accept the work of the upper chamber without alteration.

A second, perhaps no less risky, choice would be to produce House legislation that provides multiple back roads to citizenship in lieu of a single superhighway. House Republicans would stick to their "no special pathway" talking point while liberalizing existing paths to citizenship to accommodate millions more applicants. For example, limits on both low- skilled (capped at 5,000 annually) and high-skilled immigrants (capped at 85,000) could be raised for undocumented residents. Family reunification could be expanded, in part by eliminating the Catch-22 known as the three-year and 10-year bars, which require some undocumented immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens to leave the country for three years or a decade before they can become citizens themselves.

These and other policies, such as easier paths to citizenship for veterans and refugees, would be combined with a repackaged, rebranded Dream Act to provide citizenship to undocumented youths who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Such partial paths to citizenship would be a bitter pill for Democrats, not to mention the undocumented immigrants who would be denied citizenship. If the legislation proved too stingy, Democrats would no doubt refuse to support it, with Republicans probably bearing the brunt of the blame. However, Republican leaders probably also understand that if they can provide citizenship to many, even most, of the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants through back roads, such legislation would be difficult for Democrats to resist.

How many millions? That's hard to know and hard to find out.

A full path to citizenship would be the best course, on both moral and practical grounds. According to a white paper issued by the White House, a path to citizenship would boost the nation's gross domestic product by $568 billion by 2022, add 820,000 jobs and $321 billion in national income, and produce an extra $75 billion in federal and state tax revenue compared with legalization. More important, it would produce American citizens free to pursue their dreams without fear.

If an immigration bill reduced the undocumented population from 11 million to, say, 5 million or so, it might be possible to provide a path to citizenship for this smaller group at a later date. We can't say for certain whether we'd support such a bill. But we might.