Immigration reform: A GOP point man envisions (circuitous) path to citizenship

GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte outlines a possible sequence of steps on immigration reform, at the end of which undocumented immigrants could seek US citizenship, standing in line with all others. A compromise both right and left can support?

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Bob Goodlatte, House Judiciary Committee Chairman speaks at the Monitor Breakfast with reporters on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia opposes a unique path to citizenship for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today –but that shouldn’t stop those same individuals from becoming US citizens at some point. 

“There’s a broad spectrum between deportation and easy, special pathway to citizenship,” Representative Goodlatte said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, “to find a way to bring people out of the shadows and give them a legal status that will allow them to be better able to participate in our society."

Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which handles immigration issues, and other conservatives including Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho are among those attempting the politically perilous task of piloting legislation on immigration reform. Their challenge is to chart a course that reform critics will not deride as "amnesty" for those who entered the US illegally and that emerging Latino and Asian voters will not rebuke as anti-immigrant.

In Goodlatte's view, the course to an immigration deal begins by determining how to give undocumented individuals legal status in the US. Then it adds reforms to America’s legal immigration system, including clearing many of the huge backlogs that exist for some groups of people seeking permanent legal status, a precursor to citizenship. 

Only then would the formerly undocumented be able to apply for citizenship – citing family ties, employment-based sponsorship, or other means – but they would be in the application pool with all others hoping to secure a coveted US green card, the congressman said. He also noted that discussions are ongoing about how to amend restrictions that prevent unauthorized immigrants from adjusting their US status for up to a decade, a fix that would remove another impediment to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally.

“Those are good opportunities we could address,” Goodlatte said.

This circuitous citizenship route is what Goodlatte and other conservative lawmakers see as a potentially practical compromise to get immigration legislation through Congress.

“Everybody has a different definition of what a pathway to citizenship is,” he said. “To me, rather than getting bogged down in semantics we should look at what actually would enable us to find common ground that would enable us to pass legislation.”

For liberals in Congress, however, the absence of a specific pathway to citizenship for the undocumented risks creating a permanent group of "second-class citizens" who shoulder many of the responsibilities of citizenship but have none of the political rights, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a key immigration negotiator, argues frequently. 

As a practical matter, they say, putting as many as 10 million people into a system that currently admits 1 million per year will lead to years upon years of waiting. 

“I don’t think there is a magic number” of years to wait for citizenship, said Angela Maria Kelley, an immigration specialist at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, during a call with reporters on Friday. 

Undocumented immigrants “can’t jump ahead of those in family or other backlogs, but [the time] can’t be so long that they’re being admitted to nursing homes at the same time they’re applying for citizenship,” Ms. Kelley said. 

Liberal advocates also note that an immigration deal that lacks a pathway to citizenship could be politically explosive among the growing number of Asian and Latino voters. 

“I find it stunning and cynical and short-sighted, and I think it will set [Republicans] back” politically, Kelley said. “If there are any Republicans in the House whose goal it is to rebrand themselves and be Republican Party 2.0 with the Latino community, this is taking them way back, back to the era of fax machines,” Kelley continued. “It would be highly insulting. I hope this is early chest-thumping.... I hope they would calm down.”

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