Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) is working toward a compromise on legalization and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  This issue is the current bottleneck in the immigration reform debate.  Many Republican, Goodlatte included, are skeptical of a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants.  Many Democrats, however, will not support immigration reform unless some unauthorized immigrants are allowed to become citizens eventually.  Could this impasse make immigration reform impossible this year?

Goodlatte’s proposal, as far as we know, would be to grant unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status.  They would then be legally allowed to work and live here but only eligible for a green card or citizenship if they use the existing immigration system.  This proposal would shrink the number of unauthorized immigration who could eventually earn a green card or gain citizenship.

I suggest a third proposal: create two paths toward legal status.

The first path should lead to permanent legal status on a work permit that cannot be used to earn a green card unless the person marries an American or serves in the military (other categories should be considered too).  This path could be relatively easy and cheap, preferably a few hundred dollars to pay for the paperwork processing fee as well as criminal, national security, and health checks.

The second path should be toward a green card and eventual citizenship.  It should probably be similar to the Senate plan, take many years, and cost more money.  This should be the more difficult legalization process but it should not be any more difficult than what is included in the Senate bill.

Creating two paths will allow the unauthorized immigrants themselves to choose the type of legal status they wish to have in the United States.  This also addresses some of the concerns of immigration reform skeptics while actually allowing a path to citizenship that, theoretically, most unauthorized immigrants could follow.  Furthermore, this plan is probably more politically feasible than a one sized fits all path to legal status.  The sooner a reform is passes, the sooner the deportations can stop.

Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have.  The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves.  Ever more complex legalization and path to citizenship plans of the type Goodlatte will propose will not accommodate most of the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants here.  Several paths toward legal status should be created and the unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to choose for themselves.

3 thoughts on “Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose”

  1. I think the difficulty is a lot of people are absolutely hardcore opposed to granting citizenship to any “illegals” — and even if a “green card only” programme might be amenable to them, they are worried:

    1. About granting any legal recognition of any kind to “illegals” or allowing them to “benefit” in any way from having entered “illegally”

    2. The time inconsistency problem — even if the government promises not to give people citizenship today, what prevents it from giving them citizenship tomorrow?

    There’s not much one can do about the first problem, other than point out the total infeasibility, to say nothing of the immorality, of such a “hardline” stance. About the second problem, it’s a legitimate complaint and I think the best solution would be to establish a transparent and clear legal framework that allows people to come legally in the first place. Fixing these legal issues after the fact is incredibly difficult and contributes to the time inconsistency problem in the first place. The fewer ad hoc solutions we have to create on the fly and the more consistent a legal system we offer, the fairer and firmer will our immigration regime be. If people are literally willing to live in your country or die trying, you’re going to have a very hard time developing a time consistent legal regime that’s actually both just and humane.

  2. What I find fascinating about the US debate is how it assumes that people WANT to be on the path to citizenship. That is not necessarily true. As Peter Spiro points out in his excellent book Beyond Citizenship naturalizations are down in the U.S. for a lot of reasons including the fact that U.S. citizenship carries obligations that make it very unattractive for highly-skilled global migrants. I’ve been watching the value of US citizenship decline over the years. What people want (at least those who already have passports from another developed country) is legal residency and the right to live and work in the US. They also want to be free to move on to another country without incurring lifelong obligations to the US that will make it harder for them to participate fully in a globalized world. It is a dirty secret: US citizenship is not terribly compatible with global mobility. But the word is getting out. As someone who watches this (and the rise of the American diaspora) very closely I’m finding it all to be quite fascinating.

Leave a Reply