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Opinion

Immigration reform: Congress, Obama, and public are not so far apart

Both the bipartisan Senate plan and President Obama's proposal on immigration reform – which he's expected to mention in his State of the Union address tonight – show how Republican and Democrats aren’t as far apart on policy as politics might have us believe.

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The strong support for legalization that includes eventual citizenship, however, is emerging as the issue that some House Republicans balk on, as evidenced by the first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on immigration in the 113th Congress. Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia called citizenship an “extreme” solution for the 11 million. It’s a sentiment echoed by Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, who argues that he is the voice of immigration reform for House Republicans, and that those who come to the country illegally don’t merit citizenship.

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Opponents to offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship argue that doing so rewards lawbreaking and encourages a new wave of illegal immigration. They argue that the 1986 legalization program, in which roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants received legal status, failed to end illegal immigration, as its supporters promised.

What is often left out of that critique, however, is that the 1986 law did not address the question of future immigration flow – the management of permanent and temporary immigration to the United States. When jobs or family are located within the US, but when no visas are available, new enforcement measures alone will not stop illegal immigration.

Thus, those opposed to citizenship are missing the larger point of immigration reform and aren’t necessarily reflecting the views of all Republicans. For instance, Darryl Issa (R) of California, who is generally a hardliner on immigration matters, has endorsed a path to citizenship. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has stayed mum on the Senate proposal, endorsed citizenship for "DREAMers" and the children of the undocumented last week.

In other words, House Republicans are in disarray on the issue, and it is likely to get more confusing soon when a long rumored House bipartisan bill that has been in the works for several years is unveiled. That bill is widely expected to endorse a path to citizenship – as well it should, given that poll after poll shows the majority of the public supports citizenship for the undocumented.

In fact, the possible problems created by leaving 11 million people in a permanent limbo status – one in which they can never fully participate in American democracy by voting or becoming US citizens – goes to the core of American values. Once the public accepted that we must build a new immigration system that allows unauthorized immigrants to transition to a lawful permanent resident status, the debate over citizenship was already a non-starter.

Americans won’t accept an in-between category that creates second-class status for 11 million of their neighbors. It’s just not in our nature to think that such positions are a fair or practical basis for building healthy and productive communities.

It’s likely that the trial balloons denouncing a path to citizenship sent aloft by House Republicans last week are exactly that – efforts to see just how much the electorate cares and how far Republicans will have to move to appear “in the center.”

But based on competing proposals from the Senate, Obama, and even from within the House, it will become clear in the coming weeks that opposition to citizenship really is off the political map entirely.

Mary Giovagnoli is the director of the Immigration Policy Center.

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