Opinion

Republicans want to create second-class citizens. You're not DREAMing.

Republicans haven't abandoned extreme positions on immigration. They've just transferred controversial proposals to the state level.

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As the immigration debate continues, Americans need to ask themselves: How do we feel about creating a permanent group of millions of second-class citizens in this country? Because, listening to Republican immigration proposals these days, it seems that this is precisely what the some key members of the GOP want to do.

Think I’m exaggerating? Keep reading.

Since taking over the House of Representatives in January, Republicans in Congress have tried to hide the nasty underbelly of many of their immigration positions by shifting the battle away from the Capitol. They haven't abandoned extreme positions – they have merely transferred their most controversial proposals from the national to the state and local levels. If even the Republicans once touted as “moderates” cannot pull their party back from the precipice, the country will face the prospect of proposed immigration legislation that would officially shut the door on a mostly Latino under-class.

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How new proposal creates second-class citizens

Let me explain. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas recently revealed that, though she voted against the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in December, she now supports a modified bill. What’s the modification, you ask? Well, merely that DREAM – a bill that set an earned path to citizenship for youths, brought here by their parents as minors, who attend college or serve in the military – would no longer offer these students any chance of citizenship.

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In short, Sen. Hutchison’s proposal would spare DREAM youths from deportation, but wouldn’t grant them a path to citizenship. This, in effect, would convert them into permanent second-class citizens, without the right to vote. If adopted, Hutchison’s proposal would portend a neo-segregationist era: We would allow children raised in this country to remain here indefinitely, but deny them the rights that we guarantee to their schoolmates.

Moreover, if the experience of “guest workers” in this country is any guide, the permanent non-citizens that Hutchison envisions would remain more vulnerable to discrimination, the violation of labor rights, physical and sexual abuse, and threats of future deportation. Democracies, by their very nature, are designed to serve those who have a voice and vote – citizens – in their representative structure. Therefore, political systems like ours are usually bad at protecting the rights and addressing the needs of disenfranchised residents. It’s fair to expect that the fate of non-citizen permanent “visitors” in the US would be dismal indeed.

Remarkably, Hutchison remains far from the most restrictionist Republican in Congress. In fact, DREAM supporters targeted her with protests and hunger strikes in 2010 because she had previously supported the bill; they genuinely thought they could convince her. And Hutchison’s recommendation for revising the DREAM Act is not an anomaly, but instead similar to – or even less radical than – ideas floated by various Republicans since DREAM’s December defeat.

GOP has changed tactics, but not views

Upon assuming control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have gotten wise to the tide of public opinion against some of their most extreme voices on immigration. But they haven’t abandoned their stance on immigration; they’ve just changed their tactics.

For instance, to remove an easy target for Democrats, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio withheld the chairmanship of the House Immigration sub-committee from ranking Republican Steve King of Iowa, an outspoken restrictionist.

On the House floor in 2006, Rep. King constructed a model wall he proposed putting along the southern border, with an electrified wire at the top “to provide a disincentive for people to climb over the top.” He concluded, “We do this with livestock all the time” – a comment that has been interpreted as his likening undocumented immigrants to cattle. And more recently, in 2010, King said law enforcement officers could profile undocumented immigrants by “the type of grooming that they might have,” among other “common sense indicators.”

By preventing King from becoming sub-committee chair, Republicans have also tabled his plan to put the proposed repeal of "birthright citizenship" in the national spotlight. Instead, House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas – whose immigration policy positions, if not his rhetoric, appear quite similar to King’s – has chosen to focus on workplace enforcement.

Shifting immigration battle to the states

On the most extreme proposals, however, Republicans have merely shifted the battleground to the state and local arenas, as we’ve seen in Arizona. While the House has not yet taken up the proposed repeal of birthright citizenship, Republican lawmakers from 14 states – led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach – have vowed to withhold citizenship from babies born to undocumented parents.

They would do so by creating a new category of “state citizen,” in addition to “national citizen,” by which these states could then deprive these children of “state citizenship.” They have also promoted the idea of issuing different birth certificates to the children of undocumented parents, which would mark them as non-citizens.

Though the birthright citizenship proposals have (rightfully) proven more controversial, Senator Hutchison’s idea would still do something similar: create a permanent under-class of non-citizen immigrants. For DREAM students, as for future children of undocumented immigrants, this country would be all they know, their true home. But Republican lawmakers ignore that fact, and instead propose treating these youths as indefinite visitors who will never attain the rights that, politicians never tire of telling us, make America a light unto the world.

Original DREAM was the answer. Will GOP wise up?

The original DREAM Act remains the best solution to the problem of undocumented youth. DREAM demands that, to “earn” citizenship, students pay a fine, attend college or join the military, and remain ineligible for public benefits for years. This tough bargain was enough in recent years to ensure support from Republicans, including Republican Senators Lisa Murkowsi of Arkansas and Richard Lugar of Indiana and former Senator Robert Bennett of Utah in 2010. Now, the GOP must come back to the table.

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In recent months, some Republicans (notably Jeb Bush, who hosted a Hispanic Leadership Network Conference in January) have realized that the GOP needs to present a more compassionate face on immigration to avoid alienating Latino voters. Quite simply, these leaders know they need to perform better among Latinos in swing states to win the White House in 2012.

With some luck, enlightened self-interest could push GOP leaders to adopt a more sensible and compassionate stance on immigration. But the “revised” DREAM proposal from Hutchison and attacks on birthright citizenship by Republican state lawmakers augur poorly for such a shift.

Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and has written extensively on immigration politics.

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