For all its hurdles, an immigration reform bill could still cross the finish line in the House. The bigger question might be how many new citizens would follow it.
On Tuesday, reform supporters gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters in downtown Washington for a forum devoted specifically to emphasizing the importance of a citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America today.
“A path to citizenship, obviously, is a fundamental element,” Senator John McCain, a co-sponsor of the Senate’s successful immigration bill, told the audience. “The rest, I think, could be adjusted.”
Senators and immigration advocates alike say any bill without a plausible path to citizenship is a non-starter. They’re willing to pay a high price to get it: McCain said he voted to add 20,000 border patrol agents he thinks the country doesn’t need just to advance his Senate bill.
Attendees at the AFL-CIO forum offered a litany of reasons why citizenship needed to be in the bill. McCain said European countries that failed to provide full rights to immigrants faced social strife in the long run. Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra warned that many undocumented immigrants would remain “in the shadows” if they felt the best they could achieve by registering with the government was a probationary legal status. Conservative economist Douglas Holtz Eakin said it would boost the economy, citing a study showing a connection between citizenship and higher wages. They expressed hope that the religious leaders, business interests, and high-powered Republican donors backing reform would be able to sway conflicted conservative lawmakers on the issue during the August recess.
But House Republicans still have to decide if there’s any amount of concessions that can persuade them to go along with the idea. Some are opposed on principle, claiming that providing citizenship to past violators will encourage future illegal immigration. Others are opposed on political grounds, complaining citizenship would add a new pool of Democratic voters without significantly boosting the GOP’s standing with Latinos.
For now, House leaders say they’re at least looking into the issue. Details are scarce, but from the hints key GOP lawmakers have offered so far, immigration supporters could face a tough decision ahead regarding how narrow a path to citizenship can be and still count as such.
Under one scenario, the House could pass a bill providing a path to citizenship only for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, the so-called DREAMers. Majority Leader Eric Cantor has expressed support for the idea and the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on undocumented youth last week. Depending on how generous the terms of the bill would be, as many as 2 million undocumented immigrants might be affected.
That might provide some political cover for House Republicans afraid of being blamed for killing immigration reform, but it’s unlikely to become law. Although they backed similar measures in the past, House Democrats and immigration groups say the 2012 elections have boosted expectations on immigration too high to allow the government to get away with such limited measures. White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer decried on Twitter the “cruel hypocrisy of the GOP immigration plan: allow some kids to stay but deport their parents.” United We Dream, a leading advocacy group for the undocumented youth the bill purports to help, is opposed to any legislation that doesn’t also address their families’ legal status.
“I think we all know that citizenship for people like me is inevitable,” Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Pulitzer-winning reporter who disclosed in 2011 that he was an undocumented immigrant who arrived in America as a child, told msnbc. “Demographics are going to demand it, especially for the Republican Party. But the harder conversations are really how messy the sausage-making is going to get and how many people are going to get left behind.”
There are other Republican proposals besides DREAM-only that might be harder to walk away from. Virginia Congressman Bob Goodlatte, chair of the Judiciary Committee, has suggested that he might consider pairing citizenship for DREAMers with limited legal status for the broader undocumented population. They could stay in the country while pursuing a green card and citizenship through family and work visas available to all immigrants. Under current law, immigrants who violate immigration laws are barred from the country for years before they can apply for legal permanent residency. What they wouldn’t get is a new visa category, or “special path” as Goodlatte puts it, designed specifically to move them towards citizenship. Because the current visa system is so inefficient, with few slots open for the types of immigrants that tend to make up the undocumented population, few would likely become citizens under this approach.
That proposal is significantly less far-reaching than the Senate’s bill, which would provide green cards and eventual citizenship to any undocumented immigrant after 10 years if they can pass a criminal background check, learn English, pay fines and back taxes, and wait for officials to process the existing backlog of visa applications. A bipartisan group in the House working on a comprehensive bill would reportedly follow a similar if somewhat more arduous path, extending the minimum wait before citizenship to 15 years. Nonetheless, Goodlatte’s idea would protect millions from deportations while at least leaving the possibility of citizenship for some.
Democrats and reformers are still unsure how seriously they should take the proposal. Republicans would have to prove they could actually line up support behind Goodlatte’s plan. But if reformers conclude it’s a good faith effort to secure the necessary GOP support for a final bill, they’ll have to at least think about it.
Becerra told reporters he was eager to learn more about Goodlatte’s ideas, but said he needed to see actual legislative language to judge them.
“We have to make sure it’s not just a tool to avoid voting on something that actually fixes a broken immigration system,” he said. “Is it a real path or does it just lead to a dead-end alley that leaves folks stuck?”
According to America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry, a bill that provided citizenship to 2 or 3 million undocumented immigrants would fall short of his group’s goals. But if the GOP could demonstrate strong support for a less-than-ideal legalization bill, activists might be tempted to back it as a jumping off point for talks with the Senate to try and secure a better deal.
“We're not looking at an endgame, we're looking at a stepping stone to negotiation with the Senate,” Sharry told msnbc over the phone. “Let’s say 120 Republicans could support something that is not good enough for us but advances the discussion on legalization and citizenship. There would probably be some in the movement who recommend Democrats vote for it to get to conference.”
One immigration activist suggested to msnbc that, given the 13-15 year citizenship timetable in the best-case scenario, a limited legalization bill might make sense as a prelude to future immigration fights. Because the Latino voting population is projected to grow significantly, reformers could revisit the citizenship question down the road with even more electoral clout behind them.
Of course, all this is theoretical until the House GOP actually produces and advances a legalization bill. That's hardly guaranteed given their recent record.