Citizenship matters

As Congress reconvenes this week perhaps the thorniest question--in an immigration policy debate full of thorny questions--is whether the House, like the Senate, should include a special path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants as part of an immigration reform package.  Or, given the political realities of the GOP-dominated House, is a special path to citizenship worth conceding if it leads to some form of lawful status for undocumented immigrants who qualify?

Some, including even some supporters of immigration reform, argue that access to U.S. citizenship isn't important.  Undocumented immigrants, they say, just want to live, work, and raise their children without fear of deportation.  If they had to choose, so the argument goes, most would opt for legal immigrant status over citizenship.

There may be some truth to that. But the choice between legal status and citizenship is a false one. 

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A homeless person asked to choose between regular food and shelter or the opportunity to eventually own a home is likely to opt for the warm meal and a place to sleep every night.  His choice of temporary shelter doesn't mean he will not dream of one day owning his own home.  To the contrary, once he's warm and satiated he (and society as a whole) will be better off if he begins to pursue opportunities that lead to home ownership.

Similarly, an unauthorized immigrant, living in constant fear of arrest, detention, deportation and banishment from his family, may long for a secure, lawful immigration status in the U.S., not necessarily U.S. citizenship.  But once he is permitted to come out of the shadows the contributions he will be able to make will increase as he will likely increase his income through legal work, participate openly in his children's activities, and pay additional taxes on top of those he is currently paying.  Once he is able to do all of those things free from fear, when his immediate needs have been fulfilled, he may then want to become a U.S. citizen, taking on the responsibilities (like jury duty) along with the honor and privileges. 

Nor is a path to citizenship just about what's good for the immigrant.  It's important to the Nation.  The naturalization process includes background checks and other examinations of an immigrant's record in the U.S. Immigrants who choose to apply for citizenship must prove they have good moral character, demonstrate knowledge of civics and history, show English Language proficiency, establish attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, and swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S.  

Suppose immigration reform passes with no special path to earned citizenship?  What happens in 10, 20, or 30 years when millions of noncitizens living lawfully in the U.S. are ineligible for U.S. citizenship, not able to swear loyalty to a nation they call home?  Even the Supreme Court has long recognized the tenuous nature of legal residence without citizenship:

“Under our law, the alien in several respects stands on an equal footing with citizens, but in others has never been conceded legal parity with the citizen. Most importantly, to protract this ambiguous status within the country is not his right but is a matter of permission and tolerance. The Government's power to terminate its hospitality has been asserted and sustained by this Court since the question first arose.”  Harisiades  v.  Shaughnessy, 342 U.S. 580 (1952)

Make no mistake, citizenship is much more than a legal status.  It's an immigrant's admission to the American family.  Naturalization ceremonies across the U.S. include a beautiful mosaic of people from different cultures, customs, backgrounds and experiences.  What binds these diverse individuals is a common belief in the promise of America and faithfulness to the principles upon which our country was founded. 

In overhauling the immigration law, Congress should include a path to citizenship for those who choose to pursue it.  The Senate's road will take 13 years for most immigrants; that is a huge investment of time and energy into the America we love.  Failure to do so risks creation of a subclass of people lawfully in the country but unable to reach the heart of the American Dream.

Allowing immigrants to become Americans is one aspect of immigration policy that we have gotten right, and it has served us well (in contrast to other countries that limit citizenship based on country of birth).

Immigration reform should build on what we have done well, not undermine it.

Leopold is former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

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