OPINION

Matthew Kolken: A Special Path To Citizenship Is Not Necessary

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17:  Immigrants arrive for a naturalization ceremony held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office on January 17, 2014 in New York City. One hundred and fifty-three people from 41 countries became American citizens at the event.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Immigrants arrive for a naturalization ceremony held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office on January 17, 2014 in New York City. One hundred and fifty-three people from 41 countries became American citizens at the event. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (Getty)

The Republican immigration reform principles are finally out. They focus on border security and interior enforcement, including an entry-exit visa tracking system, employment verification and workplace enforcement, followed by a shift to a system that spurs economic growth creating jobs for Americans as well as immigrants. No surprises there.

The biggest threat to immigration reform, however, is those in both parties taking an all or nothing approach, as a compromise is the only way a deal gets done.

- Matthew Kolken

What is surprising is both Republicans and Democrats agree DREAMers, individuals brought here as children, should be given legal status and a path to citizenship. The other major shift recognizes that the estimated 11 million undocumented people in this country must be provided a way out of the shadows that doesn't end in deportation. There will be flaming hoops to jump through: the admission of culpability, rigorous background checks, significant fines, payment of back taxes, proficiency in English and American civics, and proving the ability to support yourself and your family without receiving public benefits. Individuals with serious criminal convictions, gang members, and sex offenders need not apply. Most significantly, no "special" path to citizenship will be created except for DREAMers. Period.

Predictably, some Democrats have gone on offense. Nancy Pelosi has drawn a hard line in the sand, reportedly calling for citizenship or nothing. Other resistance comes from AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, who dismissed Republican principles as 'fool's gold' and a "nonstarter" because they lack a new special path to citizenship. However, noted immigration lawyer Greg Siskind pushed back, commenting on his blog that "the AFL-CIO's biggest problem with immigration reform is opposition to guest workers," and not the GOP's failure to forge a new special path to citizenship for all. Mr. Siskind, a self-described loyal Democrat, is right.

The talking point that the Republican solution creates a permanent underclass is a non sequitur. While their principles don't forge a new special path to citizenship for all, it does not appear that they will permanently block the undocumented population from citizenship either. They simply believe that it is inadvisable to reward past immigration law violations with the creation of a new special path. It's a fair point.

Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy explains that the term "path to citizenship" is a "misnomer" that needs to be retired from the immigration reform lexicon. What matters, he observes, is whether undocumented immigrants may ultimately qualify to apply for lawful permanent residency, commonly referred to as "getting a green card," because becoming a lawful resident is the path to citizenship. There is no need to create a new "special" path, because the process already exists, and may be expanded during negotiations. 

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For example, if you marry a United States citizen your spouse is required to sponsor you for lawful permanent residency. After getting your green card, you must then wait a period of years before becoming eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. It doesn't happen automatically, and you can't skip the first step.  

The Republicans suggest a willingness to permit individuals to take advantage of the existing process, while also providing them with legal status and the ability to work and travel while they wait for a family member or employer to sponsor them. It is a reasonable compromise, and is the first real progress I've seen since we started this stab at immigration reform, representing movement toward the middle.

I'm not the only one that thinks so. President Obama commented that "if the Speaker proposes something that says right away, 'folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there's a regular process of citizenship,' I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being."

 Leading immigration reform Congressman Luis Gutierrez is also "delighted," stating his willingness to work with House Republicans to forge a viable compromise that stops the record deportations in their tracks. These words are encouraging and leave room for cautious optimism. The biggest threat to immigration reform, however, is those in both parties taking an all or nothing approach, as a compromise is the only way a deal gets done.

So here is to the first steps down the immigration path less traveled: the one in the middle.

Matthew L. Kolken is an immigration attorney and a national immigration reform advocate. You may follow him on Twitter at @mkolken.

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