The Road Forward on Immigration Reform

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

More than a dozen marchers on the first day of a 21-day march calling for immigration reform in Sacramento, California.

It was like watching the Grinch's heart grow three sizes on Christmas. Representative Bob Goodlatte was talking about giving citizenship to "Dreamers," young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. "These children came here through no fault of their own and many of them know no other home than the United States," the Virginia Republican said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing shortly before August recess. It was a sharp about-face: Three weeks earlier, Goodlatte and other Republicans on the committee had voted to defund the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Obama administration’s initiative to stop the steady deportation of Dreamers. Now he and his colleagues were talking about making these youngsters, people who had known no country but the United States, citizens.

Providing citizenship for the other 9 million undocumented immigrants living in America—those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas as adults—remains a dream deferred as House Republicans have yet to have a change of heart on this front. Democrats have pledged to vote against any bill that doesn't contain a path to citizenship for the undocumented. With these two immovable forces, how will immigration reform move forward?

"I do not believe that parents who made the decision to illegally enter the U.S. while forcing their children to join them should be afforded the same treatment as these kids," Goodlatte said. While supporters of immigration reform are hoping Republicans will soften on this point over the break, a dramatic reversal in the caucus’s stance seems unlikely; conservatives in the House have long railed against "amnesty"—support for granting citizenship to Dreamers is premised on the idea they do not deserve being punished for the sins of their parents.

It is important to note that a lot of conservative opposition to a "path to citizenship" is wrapped up in the semantics of the debate. "You still have some members who hear 'path to citizenship' and think we're talking about automatic citizenship," says Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza. "The other nuance is what has become a very tricky conversation about a 'special path' to citizenship." Sensitive to the charge of "amnesty," conservative Republicans—especially those facing a tough primary in 2014—don't want to be charged with letting those who have broken U.S. immigration law off the hook. The undocumented, Republicans have said, should not be allowed to "jump the line" ahead of those who are in the U.S. legally.

Unless Republicans want to maintain the status quo in which the undocumented remain off the rolls, however, the only alternative is some form of legalization. Here, conservatives have a choice: Either create a new, special category of legal permanent resident who will never have the chance to become citizens—in effect, creating a permanent underclass—or legalize and eventually merge the undocumented into existing channels of immigration. (The Senate bill first legalizes the undocumented population, creating a new category of "registered provisional immigrant," but after ten years merges this group with the general pool of green-card holders.)

As Greg Sargent at The Washington Post points out, the political question for Republicans is whether any form of legalization will be equated with amnesty. There are signs that at least a few Republicans may sign on to an approach that imposes stiff penalties on undocumented immigrants—and requires that certain border-security metrics be met—but eventually allows them to apply for citizenship. Over the break, three Republicans have come out in favor of such an approach, which supporters of reform have pointed to as a promising sign. But the most likely scenario remains one in which Republicans offer citizenship to Dreamers and the ominous-sounding "legal status" to their parents.

This puts Democrats in a difficult position: Do they kill the bill and take the fall for sinking immigration reform? Or do they take what they can get? While Democrats in the House will be under enormous pressure to turn down a bill that doesn't deal with the entire undocumented population, it is in conference—where discrepancies between the House and Senate bills are ironed out—that immigration reform will be made or broken. Democrats can pass a bill with only a legalization program in the House and then this proposal can be upgraded in conference. "It can go from coach to business," says Angie Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at liberal think tank Center for American Progress. "The conference committee provides an opportunity to enhance the bill. That could apply to resources at border, legal immigration, and certainly to what treatment of the 11 million looks like and whether they ultimately have a path." A majority of conferees would have to sign on to an upgraded bill, which would then have to pass both chambers of Congress.

Another scenario reformers say is possible is a backdoor way of granting citizenship to a good chunk of the 11 million undocumented. The original DREAM Act has provisions in place to prevent "chain migration,” in which the parents of Dreamers are ineligible for family-based immigration. If these provisions are removed, Dreamers could sponsor a significant number of their parents and immediate family members for citizenship. Legislators would also need to clear out the backlogs in the existing immigration channels. "There are a lot of ways you can slice and dice 11 million and status and ultimately deal with citizenship," says Kelley.

While some commentators are pessimistic about immigration reform getting through Congress, there seems to be too much momentum—and too much at stake—for nothing to get through. For Democrats, the failure of immigration reform would mean a continuation of the Obama administration's record deportations without any administrative relief. And while Republicans seem to be the roadblock, the GOP's most powerful constituencies—business and faith—have solidly backed reform; it is a small but vocal minority of Tea Party activists who are standing in the way. The agreements and compromises holding immigration reform together are fragile, and a lot depends on the ground game during the current congressional timeout: the signals legislators get about what their constituents want. It's too early to know with certainty what a bill will look like once it reaches the president's desk, but it's important to remember that the citizenship question and how it's resolved is no arcane policy question. Sometimes it's easy to forget that millions of lives are at stake in the political games legislators play in Washington.

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