Legalization and Citizenship: Which Roads Lead to Rome?

Foto Idaho Farm Bureau

Foto Idaho Farm Bureau

By Maribel Hastings

America’s Voice, Washington, DC



Now that Republicans in the House of Representatives are preparing to unveil their “principles” for immigration reform, speculation is raging over how broad the “legalization” they will propose might be. There are plenty of paths to take. There are certain things we know, and many things we don’t, about who from among the vast and diverse population of undocumented immigrants would be eligible for an accelerated path-though not necessarily a special one-for citizenship; who would be able to receive legal status; and who would be left out of the equation entirely.

To Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), in the debate over legalization vs. citizenship, the right frame gets lost:  “It’s not either or. The question is how wide is the path to citizenship, what does that look like, how it compares to what the Senate did (as embodied in S. 744, passed on June 27, 2013) or how it compares with HR 15 (the Democratic bill for comprehensive reform),” he says.

“And frankly, we don’t have all the answers to that, but what is true is that, like the saying goes, there are multiple ways to skin a cat, there are multiple ways to get to comparable outcomes.”

There’s no doubt that between 1.5 million and 2 million DREAMers will have access to an accelerated path to citizenship in a House proposal-should a bill ever hit the floor. Many of these undocumented youth, brought here as children by parents or relatives, have been protected from deportation by the Deferred Action program (DACA) opened by the Obama Administration in 2012.

It’s also probable that approximately 1 million to 1.5 million farmworkers will benefit from some “channel” to citizenship. Farmworkers represent one of the most vulnerable sectors of the undocumented population, and one of the most essential: they pick or process the food on our tables. 72% of farmworkers are immigrants; of those, between 75% and 90% lack documents.

Beyond the DREAMers and the farmworkers, what will happen to the rest of the universe of the undocumented?

One of the biggest obstacles to the legalization of undocumented immigrants is the “3- and 10-year bars,” which prevent immigrants whose permanent-resident or citizen relatives or spouses have filed petitions on their behalf from getting on the path to legalization and eventual citizenship. Immigrants who arrived without documents in the United States and then, thanks to the sponsorship of a relative, become eligible for and seek legal status must file their request  in a U.S. consulate abroad. But once they leave the United States, they trigger the bars: if an immigrant has lived in the United States for six months without papers, he must wait 3 years to enter the country legally; if she has lived in the United States for a year without papers, she must wait 10 years. While the government grants “waivers” to certain immigrant relatives of U.S. citizens if they can prove that years of separation would prove “exceptional hardship” to the family, the immigrant petitioning for the waiver must still leave the country to apply-without knowing if their waiver will be approved, or if they will trigger the bars anyway. New regulations allow some of these immigrants to complete part of the process in the United States, thus allowing them to leave the country knowing they can return. But the process is complicated and, given the risks, many have chosen to remain without legal status.

No one knows how many people are in this position: perhaps 1 million, perhaps 3.5 or 4 million. The problem isn’t just the 3- and 10-year bars, but that there aren’t enough visas to regularize everyone who petitions. Will the bars be lifted? Will the visa caps be raised? If both happen, it means, potentially, legalization and an eventual path to citizenship for millions.

Here’s another “channel”: It’s estimated that at least 5 million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent. That comes out to about 4.4 million parents. The organization Families First has calculated that 100,000 fathers and mothers of U.S. citizens are deported each year. Many of these parents would benefit from lifting the 3- and 10-year bars. Others would have to wait for their children to be eligible to file petitions for them: upon legalizing as DREAMers, or reaching the age of 21.

There are plenty of analyses out there with plenty of numbers, but since to date there’s still no bill or bills with specific language, it’s difficult to offer even estimates of who would benefit. And it remains to be seen how specific the “principles” of reform that House Republicans present will be.

While the immigration issue doesn’t appear to be inspiring much urgency from Republicans going into the midterm elections, the pressure to attract Latino votes before the general election of 2016 could be a factor in Republicans’ calculations. And one way to repair their image among Latino voters is to pass immigration reform.

On the face of it, it looks like they’ve made a step forward: from promoting “self-deportation” to considering plans for legalization.

What those plans might look like is very much speculation because there are no details as of yet.

“But what is important is that there are other ways, even if you are basically saying we are gonna use existing channels, if you add additional numbers (of visas), there are other ways to get to a really substantial, very big number of people getting permanent residence therefore becoming, through that, eligible for citizenship. It will be on different timelines, it won’t be kind of this one size fits all that is in the Senate bill, setting aside DREAMers and Ag workers, but for the rest of the population it will be contingent on other relation (familial or work),”says Fitz.

In the debate over legalization and citizenship, many roads lead to Rome.  Will the Republicans take one of them?

Maribel Hastings is Senior Advisor at America’s Voice

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