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Immigration reform 101: Should illegal immigrants be offered citizenship path?

As the immigration reform debate intensifies, some lawmakers propose a middle ground between deportation and citizenship for illegal immigrants. Critics say that will create a permanent underclass.

By Staff writer / February 7, 2013

Julian Castro (c.), mayor of San Antonio, accompanied by his brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D) of Texas (2nd from r.), prepares to testify before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration on Feb. 5.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Should immigration reform legislation offer people living in the United States illegally a (long) pathway to citizenship? Or would some intermediate step such as legal residency suffice?

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That’s a debate that arose this week at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the prospects for fixing America’s rickety immigration system. It’s not a simple argument, given that it involves national and immigrant identity, the reasons some risk their lives to sneak across the US border, simple fairness, and practical considerations about the design of any new immigration system.

 It also, perhaps, presages the difficult policy arguments to come as the effort to craft a 2013 reform bill picks up momentum in Congress.

“Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia at the hearing.

Right now, an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants are already in the country. President Obama supports providing them a way to eventually qualify for US citizenship. Some Republicans are beginning to come out in support of the same thing, given their party’s lack of success in attracting Hispanic voters.

The so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan Senate immigration proposals, for instance, would require individuals here illegally to register with the government, pay a fine and back taxes, and undergo a background check. In return, they’d get probationary legal status – and the opportunity to stand in the back of the line to get eventual US citizenship. Everyone who’s already in that line, legally, would get their opportunity first.

“Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law,” states the proposal, backed by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, among others.

This would be contingent on tighter border security – a linkage Mr. Obama and many other Democrats oppose.

Many in the GOP oppose this approach, however. They label it “amnesty” and a draw for future illegal immigrants, who will come to the US believing that eventually they will receive similar treatment.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, for instance, argued at the House hearing that, in his years serving as an immigration lawyer, he has talked to thousands of people living here illegally, and that what they want is not citizenship per se, but to come out of the shadows, live and work legally, and be treated with dignity.

“So if we can find a solution that is short of a pathway to citizenship ... but better than just kicking 12 million people out, why is that not a good solution?” said Representative Labrador.

The answer, said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a hearing witness, is that an intermediate solution would create a class of permanent second-class residents.

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