There’s a growing sense of optimism around the possibility of Congress actually working together on a bipartisan basis to pass some sort of an immigration reform in the coming months. Senators on both sides of the aisle say they are close to an agreement. Key Republicans in the House of Representatives say reform is “doable,” as some of the most conservative members frame the debate as an opportunity to apply their Christian faith to public policy. The President says he believe it’s possible to have a bill signed into law by the summer. When I had the unique opportunity (with several other immigration reform advocates) to meet him last week, he told us he is more optimistic about the prospects for reaching the necessary bipartisan consensus on immigration reform than on any other legislative priority. For those of us who have been working toward this moment for years, excitement is high.
I think it is wise to temper anticipation with the sober reality that there are still many things that could go wrong: Democrats and Republicans coming together in a bipartisan spirit of compromise for the good of the country would, of course, be the exception to the rule in recent years. And a single unforeseen event could dramatically shift public opinion—currently strongly in support of reform, among both Republican and Democratic voters—in a new, unhelpful direction. We would do well to be faithful both in prayer—entrusting this situation to God, who is sovereign even over fickle political processes (Proverbs 21:1)—and in action, speaking up for vulnerable, disenfranchised immigrants whose voices are not often heeded by re-election-minded legislators (Proverbs 31:8). (For college students, in particular, G92 has a unique opportunity to speak up in the next few weeks, which could also win you five free tickets to next year’s Justice Conference).
If immigration reform does make it through the legislative process, it will inevitably not be a perfect bill that satisfies everyone. Politics is “the art of the possible,” as von Bismarck once quipped, and arriving at a bill that can pass both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will require compromise. That said, there are a few traps—some of which are being advocated mostly by Republicans, others of which are being pushed primarily by Democrats—that I personally hope our legislators will avoid:
1) Legalization without the Possibility of Eventual Citizenship.
2) Gutting the Family Reunification System.
3) Failing to Provide a Robust Legal Immigration System.
I’ll address that first point today, and the others in upcoming posts.
Legalization-Only versus Citizenship
The key Republicans leading on immigration reform in the Senate, as well as most Democrats (including the President), have said that immigrants who are currently undocumented who wish to remain permanently in the U.S. should be able to earn the right to do so through a process that would include paying a fine, passing a criminal background check, showing efforts toward learning English, and paying any back taxes they may owe. At the end of this probationary period—they’re discussing everything between a five and a ten year process, long enough to ensure that those currently outside of the U.S. with approved visa applications would receive Lawful Permanent Residency status first—formerly-undocumented folks would be eligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident Status. From there, like anyone else with Lawful Permanent Resident status under current law, they could wait three to five years more and apply for naturalization, which would require passing a test of history and American government in English. This process, which has been dubbed “a path to citizenship,” is the preferred policy of most of the immigrant rights groups. Many evangelical leaders clarified recently that they think an eventual process to become U.S. citizens should be part of the final bill (though the term “pathway to citizenship” may not capture how long and arduous the path being proposed would be).
Others, particularly on the Republican side in the House of Representatives, have argued that most undocumented individuals who have violated the law should be able to earn legal status—allowed to stay and work lawfully, if they pay a fine and meet certain other requirements—but not be eligible for citizenship. That, some have suggested, should be their punishment (beyond the fine) for having overstayed their visas or entered without inspection.
If my interactions with my undocumented neighbors are a fair sample, it is probably true, as some advocates of this position have noted, that for most undocumented immigrants, many of whom live in daily desperation and fear of being deported and separated from their families, legal status—not citizenship—is their most urgent desire, and many would probably be satisfied just with legalization. But I think it is important that they be eventually allowed to apply for citizenship not just for their own sake, but for the good of the country as a whole: America (just like the Church, as described in 1 Corinthians 12) is strongest when each person is integrated into the whole, so that we operate as an interdependent unit. E pluribus unum says our coins: out of many, we are one. Citizenship—earned, not given cheaply—is the legal recognition of full integration, and if we want to avoid the bifurcated realities of many European countries where national identity is closely tied to ethnicity and outsiders can never really become insiders, even after decades within the country, there ought to be a process by which those who want to work for it can become fully integrated American citizens.
Later this week, I’ll look at two related potential pitfalls—one mostly coming from the right, the other mostly from the left—that are based in the same zero-sum thinking about immigration, an idea that economists think is folly. On Wednesday, I’ll examine the idea of dramatically limiting family reunification visas in order to make space for people with advanced degrees, and later this week I’ll explain why I believe it would be short-sighted—and a replay of the failures of past immigration reforms—to starkly limit visas for “low-skilled” employer-sponsored workers.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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