Immigration-reform critics fear citizenship pathway will spark rush to cross border

Opponents of a comprehensive immigration reform plan fear that creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States will spark an increase in border crossings.

Immigration legislation that could move this year is expected to include provisions that require prior evidence of residence in the U.S., but any surge of border crossings will spark a range of questions for policymakers. 

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Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said granting citizenship to the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. would encourage even more foreigners to try to enter the nation.

“Any time you offer a pathway to citizenship — which in this case will be amnesty — will only encourage millions more, like it did in 1986. You’re encouraging them by offering the benefits of American citizenship at a time when our borders remain open. We have no way of stopping people from coming here illegally right now,” Barletta said in an interview with The Hill. 

The 1986 law, brokered by then-President Reagan, stipulated that citizenship would be granted to illegal workers who had been in the country for five years. Similar language was included in measures put forward in 2006 and 2007, both of which fell short.

Barletta pointed out that the number of individuals who became citizens in 1986 was double the estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants living in the country at the time. 

Proponents of current reform measures, however, argue that the 1986 law did not adequately tackle the underlying issue of immigration reform. 

“What we did not do in 1986, and what is part of every bill now and in the last decade or so, is to simultaneously fix the legal immigration system. If you have a legal immigration option, you are not likely to come illegally,” said a source close to a lawmaker who favors immigration reform.

Still, leaders of hard-line immigration groups contend that granting amnesty to current illegal workers without stricter border enforcement will allow for exploitation of the law.

“There will be a rush to the border ... when there are too many applicants applying to immigrate, you get fraud and inefficiency. Anyone who sends in a receipt will just get rubber-stamped,” said Federation for American Immigration Forum (FAIR) spokesman Ira Mehlman. 

Others disagree, pointing to the ailing economy. 

“I don’t think that the prospect of immigration reform is as strong a magnet as the prospect of a job. As long as our economy is weak, unemployment in sectors such as construction is still high, the financial and physical costs of crossing the border are high, and the Mexican economy continues to grow, I don’t think there will be a major surge in migration from Mexico,” said Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

Doris Meissner, a former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service director, said, “While there was a slight uptick in apprehensions for fiscal 2012, the notable fact is that Mexican crossings continued to decline and the small increase was largely of migrants from Central America, whose numbers are unlikely to replace the earlier Mexican inflows.” 

A recent front-page article in The Washington Post focused on Lazaro Limon, a 44-year-old father of American children who has been deported five times and keeps trying to return. 

Limon said, “I think President Obama is going to give preference to people like me, whose children are American, who have never taken welfare, and who don’t have criminal records.”

It remains to be seen how Congress will deal with illegal immigrants who successfully enter the U.S. but who don’t qualify for a pathway to citizenship.

The Senate last tackled comprehensive immigration reform during former President George W. Bush’s second term. At that time, members of the Minuteman Project, which monitors the U.S./Mexican border in Arizona, said they saw a slew of attempts to enter the U.S. illegally.

In an interview this month, Minuteman Project President Jim Gilchrist said, “Due to a lack of immigration law enforcement, Congress will be to encouraging tens of millions of more people from all around the world, not just in Mexico and Central America, to come to the border and into the U.S. illegally at will.”