Coalition pushes citizenship as part of immigration reform

A new coalition composed of prominent labor and human rights groups is urging Congress to include a "meaningful" pathway to citizenship as part of any immigration reform deal.

The Alliance for Citizenship — which is composed of such groups as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the National Council of La Raza and the Southern Poverty Law Center — is warning that lawmakers opposed to eventual citizenship risk losing the growing Hispanic vote in national elections for years to come.

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"Immigration is a galvanizing issue for Hispanics," Janet Murguía, head of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, said Tuesday in a phone call with reporters. "Our role is growing … We want to keep the pressure on to see this issue through."

The coalition has launched a national campaign designed to do just that, kicking off this week with a Spanish language radio ad calling on Hispanics to press Congress on the citizenship issue. With Hispanic voters siding overwhelmingly with President Obama in last year's presidential election, support that helped him secure a second term, the advocates see themselves with good leverage in the fight.

"The power to make a difference is ours," says the narrator in the translated version of the ad. "They heard our voice in November — they’ll hear it again today."

The campaign arrives just days after a draft immigration reform proposal leaked from the White House. That blueprint, first reported by USA Today over the weekend, would offer undocumented immigrants legal permanent residency within eight years, a time-frame that has received criticism from some immigrant rights advocates who want the process to move faster.

Indeed, the PICO National Network, a faith-based human rights group, is pushing reforms that would allow all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country to gain citizenship — not just permanent residency — within seven years.

By contrast, leaders of the Alliance for Citizenship declined this week to say what specific parameters should accompany a pathway to citizenship, arguing that advocating for particulars, including specific timelines, might undermine the reform effort at this early stage in the process. Instead, they framed their campaign in broad strokes, urging a citizenship pathway that is "reasonable," "meaningful" and "clear."

"Saying more than that would be inappropriate and premature," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The timelines "will sort themselves out," Murguía said. "We'll have to withhold judgment until we see many more specifics."  

Eliseo Medina, the SEIU's secretary-treasurer, conceded that the transition to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants won't happen overnight. But he warned that the coalition won't support an immigration reform package in which the citizenship pathway faces "roadblocks and unreasonable waiting periods."

Pressed on that timeline, Medina said that to wait for three or four more presidential elections,  between 12 and 16 years from now, would be too long. But he also warned that the advocates don't want to "lock ourselves into" a specific figure before legislation has been proposed.

"We want the shortest amount of time that we can get," Medina said.

Coalition leaders also pushed back against the notion of making the pathway to citizenship dependent on tougher enforcement measures, a condition included in the immigration-reform blueprint unveiled last month by a bipartisan group of eight influential senators. The advocates said enforcement measures are simply too subjective to hinge the citizenship benefits upon them.

"We've seen these goal posts move around," Murguía said.

John McCullough, president and CEO of the Church World Service, a human rights group, was even more terse.

"No pathway to citizenship should be contingent on more border enforcement measures," McCullough said Tuesday.

The pathway to citizenship provision faces a tough road in Congress, particularly in GOP-controlled House, where a number of conservative Republicans consider anything less than the deportation of illegal immigrants to be "amnesty" for law breakers.

"Amnesty means fewer jobs for legal immigrants and unemployed Americans," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former head of the House Judiciary Committee who now sits on the immigration subpanel, warned last week.

Meanwhile, Obama's leaked reform draft has rubbed other Republicans the wrong way. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — a key endorser of the bipartisan Senate blueprint that champions eventual citizenship — accused the president of making the debate more partisan than it already was.

"If actually proposed, the president's bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come," Rubio said in a statement.

Murguía, of La Raza, said there's "some legitimacy" to Rubio's criticisms of Obama, but she was quick to add that it's also "legitimate and appropriate" for the president to remind lawmakers that he'll push his own reforms if Congress fails to reach a deal on its own.

She characterized the partisan barbs as "healthy tensions" that put pressure on both sides to secure comprehensive reforms this year.

"Both appear committed," she said.