'Second-class' status not a good objection to 'legal status' for immigrants

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonThe GDP and 'Trump-o-nomics' explained Poll: Clinton holds 4-point lead in Florida Trump campaign encouraging surrogates to sow worry about ballot fraud MORE last week condemned a proposal by certain GOP presidential candidates that would provide a form of "legal status" to unauthorized immigrants. She called anything short of a path to citizenship "code for second-class status," which, if a Google search is any guide, is intended to raise the specter of segregation or worse. But her position is both incoherent and self-contradictory.

Start with the self-contradiction. Moments after this line, she goes on to say that, as president, "if Congress continues to refuse to act" on immigration reform, she'd plan to "go even further" than President Obama's executive actions and make "parents of Dreamers" eligible "for the same deferred action as their children."

But what is "deferred action"? It certainly isn't a pathway to citizenship. It's quasi-legal status: administrative relief that deems a person lawfully present in the United States. But it's actually worse than legal status because it is not based on anything more than the whim of the executive branch. So in the process of condemning the GOP's legislative legal status proposal, Clinton proposes her own administrative, qualitatively worse version.

Moreover, her position is incoherent. It is true that anything other than citizenship is literally a second class of status. But even if Congress did what she wants and granted every person here illegally a green card, we would still have a second class of residents. A green card — lawful permanent residency — does not grant citizenship, voting rights, access to public benefits or even an irrevocable right to reside in the United States.

Ironically, the Democratic front-runner's surge to the left is forcing her to mouth the arguments of the right. In 2013, for example, conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru condemned guest-worker programs in the Senate immigration bill as formalizing a "two-tier labor market" in which people "contribute to this country but aren't full participants in it."

Here, Ponnuru might as well be quoting then-Sen. Obama who, in 2007, denounced the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill's provisions that would create a status under which "some people are welcome only as guest workers, not as full participants in our democracy." He ultimately helped bring the bill down for this reason alone.

Ponnuru, Clinton and Obama ignore history. America has had a two-tier immigration system since the founding of this country. People have always entered under different categories with varying levels of rights and responsibilities and never as "full participants in our democracy."

More importantly, they fail to appreciate the practicality of this system. In a globalized marketplace, why should we want people to be full participants in our democracy without full commitment to our nation? Why should we say to would-be migrant workers: "either become Americans or get out"?

Moreover, it's worth questioning whether Clinton's outpouring of compassion for those here illegally will extend to those who wish to come in the future. In the past, she opposed guest-worker programs, which provide the only way for lesser-skilled migrant workers to enter legally. Will she offer instant citizenship to them as well, or will she just try to keep them out, a strategy that will condemn even more people to live and work in the shadows?

Clinton might be right to argue for a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal residents. It is nonsense, however, to claim that Republicans are proposing something akin to segregation by advocating legal status without citizenship. The real "segregation" would be to deny immigrants hope for any status at all.

This piece has been revised.

Bier leads the immigration policy department at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian nonprofit.