Immigration Reform: All Eyes on the House

Things are looking up for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), at least in the U.S. Senate. Toward the end of February, President Obama met with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lead GOP negotiators for the Senate’s “gang of eight,” the bipartisan working group tasked with hashing out a consensus immigration bill in the coming weeks. Both senators emerged from the meeting with optimistic statements about the President’s commitment to fixing our immigration system. [See Senator McCain Upbeat on Immigration Reform Outlook, by Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu, Reuters, 26.Feb.2013.] As the Washington Post reported, Senator Graham went so far as to praise the President for understanding the need for robust border security, a longstanding concern of the GOP base. [See McCain, Graham Say Obama Understands Border Security’s Link to Immigration Reform, by Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post, 26.Feb.2013.]

In the U.S. House of Representatives, however, prospects for passage of CIR remain cloudy, at best – not least because Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), a leading member of the chamber’s Republican majority, is ambivalent about providing a “path to citizenship” for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who live here currently.

Most agree that a path to citizenship, in some form, is an essential element of comprehensive immigration reform, without which its political support will crumble. Mr. Goodlatte, an immigration lawyer who chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee, has not ruled out the possibility of citizenship for the undocumented – eventually – but he has publicly stated his opposition to a “special pathway” to citizenship, as the Christian Science Monitor reported. [See Immigration Reform: A GOP Point Man Envisions (Circuitous) Path to Citizenship, by David Grant, Christian Science Monitor, 27.Feb.2013. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Goodlatte, like other conservatives, is in a quandary: “Their challenge is to chart a course that reform critics will not deride as ‘amnesty’ for those who entered the U.S. illegally and that emerging Latino and Asian voters will not rebuke as anti-immigrant.”

In Goodlatte’s view, it’s a question of fairness to the millions of people who are already waiting in line for green cards: he doesn’t want undocumented immigrants to “cut” the line. Instead, he believes they should go to the back of the line. [See Bob Goodlatte on Immigration: ‘We’re Open’ to Legalization for Undocumented Immigrants, by Elise Foley, Huffington Post, 27.Feb.2013.]

This sounds reasonable, at first. The problem is: many in the green card line – those who applied through normal legal channels – have already waited several years, and will have to wait several more to get their green cards before they can even line up for citizenship. Add eleven million NEW applicants to this line and you create a backlog that would take many more years to clear. If the promise of citizenship recedes too far into the future, it risks becoming a path to second-class citizenship – what Elise Foley of the Huffington Post calls a “permanent underclass” – a solution that’s neither useful nor just.

The entire immigration reform scheme could come down to this: finding a path to citizenship that’s sufficiently arduous to satisfy House conservatives, but not so impossible as to be a false promise – and a deal breaker – for immigrant advocates in the House and Senate. No doubt this will require some flexibility on all sides. Stay tuned.

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