'Path to citizenship' roils immigration reform. But what is it, exactly?

The most contentious issue in immigration reform is probably the potential of a 'path to citizenship.' But the heated rhetoric obscures the fact that both sides have many points of agreement.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (l.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, members of the Senate's immigration reform Gang of Eight, tour the Nogales port of entry Wednesday in Nogales, Ariz.

Immigration advocates demand it. Conservative immigration reformers say it's not happening. The very mention of it freaks out Sen. Rand Paul.

It’s the most politically-explosive issue in the ongoing immigration reform debate – but what is a “path to citizenship,” anyway?

In short, the question of a pathway to citizenship asks whether the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country can ever become US citizens.

The question today is largely what kind of route the currently undocumented would take to become citizens – a special path designed specifically for the current illegal population or the regular channels available to other potential immigrants.

Everyone agrees that a final bill won’t have any sort of deportation for the vast majority of the undocumented population. In the past, some hardliners on immigration hoped the federal government would either begin a deportation program or adopt policies making enforcement conditions so unbearable for those in the country illegally that they self-deport (as Mitt Romney put it).

Instead, both conservative and Democratic reformers from Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida to President Obama and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois believe the first step for immigration reform is putting undocumented people on a pathway to “legal status” in the US.

Whenever you hear a phrase similar to “bringing people out of the shadows,” you’re hearing a politician talking about a “probationary” period where the currently-illegal can work, get drivers licenses and generally live their lives with many of the responsibilities of US citizens but a diminished number of rights.

This isn’t a status conferred for free, however.

Those here illegally would have to hit eligibility criteria like paying a fine and taxes and passing a background check before they would be eligible for such a program. Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have said that those in this status will not be eligible for a slew of federal-benefits programs like welfare or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. And, of course, they couldn’t vote.  

Moreover, everybody agrees that the undocumented who qualify for probationary legal status in the US will have to wait at least eight years before they can attempt to change their immigration status.

What happens next is the tricky part.

Republicans are opposed to allowing these people, at the end of their eight-year probation, a special path to obtaining green cards (formally known as becoming a “legal permanent resident”). The green card is the doorway to citizenship: Green card holders wait five years before applying to become US citizens.

”It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, a key GOP immigration negotiator, at a large gathering of conservative political activists in Maryland recently.

But Republicans, including Representative Labrador and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, agree that creating what Democrats call a “permanent underclass” of noncitizen residents of the US is undesirable.

Instead, Republicans want to channel the currently undocumented through a reformed legal immigration system.

Immigrant advocates point out the difficulties inherent in this approach, which requires each applicant to be sponsored by an employer or a family member. Currently, the US offers 1 million new green cards each year. That means it would take 50 years or longer for all the undocumented immigrants already in the country to reach citizenship. Broadening the current system to expedite those applications would be a tall, if not impossible, order, immigration advocates add.

But while they’d prefer a special path to citizenship, Democrats and immigrant advocates aren’t averse to a program that takes a little longer for the undocumented to reach citizenship. They won’t stand for a program that puts citizenship much farther than a decade out of reach, though.

The undocumented “can’t jump ahead” of applicants already waiting in family backlogs, for example, says Angela Marie Kelley of the liberal Center for American Progress, but the process “can’t be so long that they’re being admitted to nursing homes at the same time they’re applying for citizenship.”

How can this be resolved? It appears the two sides are going to try to figure out how to reconfigure the legal immigration stream to bring the undocumented into the system.

Representative Gutierrez told reporters at a recent breakfast hosted by the Monitor that there would be no “special” path to citizenship. In the principles offered by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight, illegal immigrants would have a pathway to citizenship, but the group carefully did not specify whether this would be through a unique system or through a revamped pathway to green cards.

Given that general consensus, Washington spends a tremendous amount of time focused on whether this politician or that one actually says the words “pathway to citizenship.”

Republicans, generally, don’t; Democrats, almost entirely, do.

That’s because the term has become politically-loaded, largely because its often set against another explosive concept: amnesty, or the idea that those breaking immigration law will be let off the hook for their crime.

But getting hung up on the word, rather than focusing on what negotiators on either side are actually proposing from a policy perspective, makes the two sides appear farther apart than they actually are.

Senator Paul, a Kentucky Republican and potential 2016 presidential challenger with the adoration of libertarian-leaning conservatives across the country, wouldn’t go anywhere near the term during or after a recent speech in which he offered his broad support for immigration reform.

“I think the whole debate on immigration is trapped in a couple of words,” Paul said, calling out two concepts: path to citizenship and amnesty. “If we get trapped too much in these descriptive terms and make it really simple either for or against, I think what we do is we’re going to polarize the debate and not allow us to move forward with it.”

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