Immigration reform 101: How is 'legal status' different from citizenship?

House Republicans are considering a list of principles that could guide immigration reform legislation, should they decide to act on the issue. The list includes a pathway to legal status, but not citizenship, for illegal immigrants. Here's the difference.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
An immigrant waves a US flag at a naturalization ceremony for 3,703 new US citizens in Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 17, 2013.

Of all the sticking points in immigration reform, the stickiest is what to do about the estimated 11 million people already living illegally in the United States.

The Senate, in its bipartisan reform bill approved last June, opted to grant a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. In the House, many Republicans call that "amnesty," and want none of it. Now, however, House Republicans are discussing this alternative: Provide a pathway to legal status, but not citizenship. 

So far, that idea is just a talking point on a list of immigration reform principles that House Republicans are considering at a retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore Jan. 29-31. Even so, it could mark the road to an actual law or laws, so the distinction is important. Below we answer questions about legal status versus citizenship, and the arguments on both sides of the debate.

What does “legal status” entail?

Gaining legal status would likely mean three things for people now living in the US illegally, according to Doris Meissner, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies global migration.

First, they would no longer be subject to deportation solely because they’re in the country illegally, as long as they are law abiding in other ways. Second, they would be authorized to work. Third, they would have the ability to travel in and out of the United States. At least 60 percent of the illegal population has been in the US for more than 10 years, says Ms. Meissner, and are unable to return to their home countries to visit family or for other reasons.

Republicans would want immigrants to meet certain conditions to qualify for legal status, such as admitting they entered the country illegally, passing background checks, paying fines and back taxes, and becoming proficient in English and American civics.

How would legal status differ from citizenship?

The Senate bill allows for a 13-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. As naturalized citizens, they would be eligible to receive government benefits, such as unemployment insurance and Social Security. They could vote. And they would be eligible for special immigration privileges, such as being able to bring family members into the country. If they commit a crime, they can't be deported.

These privileges of citizenship would not apply to people with legal status.

Why do many Republicans object to citizenship?

They view citizenship as “amnesty” that rewards people who broke the law. It unfairly gives illegal immigrants a “head start” over people trying to enter the country legally, they say. And granting citizenship to such people – even if the process takes 13 years – would only serve to convince future illegal migrants that they, too could eventually get citizenship if they just pressure Congress long enough. 

Actually, some conservatives consider both citizenship and legal status to be “amnesty.” Both, they say, reward lawbreakers, give illegal immigrants an advantage, and signal to future illegal entrants that the door is open to them, too.

Conservatives do want other aspects of immigration reform: tighter border security, greater immigration enforcement at the workplace, and a functioning visa system. Only after these goals are achieved, they argue, will it be time to look at the undocumented who are already here. 

For some conservatives, however, the time for immigration reform will never be ripe as long as President Obama is in office. They see him as lax on immigration enforcement, despite buttressing of the border patrol and increased workplace sweeps. "If the president cannot be trusted to enforce existing immigration laws, why should he be trusted to enforce new immigration laws?” asks Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas.

Why do many Democrats back citizenship?

They, too, see this as a fairness issue. It is unfair and un-American for the government to institute two classes of people in the US, a class with full rights and a lesser class without full rights, they argue. One part of immigration reform must be to bring the undocumented fully out of the shadows so that they can openly contribute to the economy and civic life, they argue. A full contribution is possible only with full citizenship.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California champions this view. “There has to be a path to citizenship,” she reiterated Jan. 29. And it must be comprehensive, including children of illegal immigrants (so-called “Dreamers”) and adults, she said.

Why might legal status work as a compromise?

Immigrant groups themselves rank legal status as more important than citizenship, by pluralities of Hispanics and Asian-Americans – who make up two-thirds of the 28 million immigrants in the US. That may be the strongest argument on behalf of legalization. 

Fifty-five percent of Hispanic adults in the US say that “being able to live and work in the US legally without the threat of being deported” is more important for unauthorized immigrants than “having a pathway to citizenship for those who meet certain requirements,” according to a December survey by the Pew Research Center. Among Asian-American adults in the US, 49 percent hold that view. Both groups still overwhelmingly favor a pathway to citizenship, but they say protection from deportation is the greater need.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D) of Kentucky, who worked on bipartisan immigration legislation in the House last year, believes that if getting immigration reform across the finish line in the House were to depend on giving up on citizenship and accepting legal status, enough Democrats would compromise to pass reform.

"If that were the only thing holding up a comprehensive measure, there would be a majority of votes in the House for passage [of legal status], but with fewer Democrats,” he said in an interview this week.

There's also the purely political consideration. Because "legal status" would not give these 11 million people the right to vote, some Republican lawmakers might be more receptive to it. That's because ethnic minorities currently vote Democratic by a large margin, and the new citizens would be presumed to do the same, at least initially. Democratic lawmakers may resist such a compromise for the same reason, not wanting to forgo an infusion of Democratic voters.

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