Compromise or Second-Class Status? ‘Legalization’ vs. ‘Citizenship’

Carrie Dann, NBC News, July 12, 2013

As the Senate and the GOP-led House remain at loggerheads over immigration reform, some Republicans have floated the idea of allowing most undocumented immigrants to gain legal status but not full American citizenship.

The logic goes like this: Many Republicans say that citizenship is a bridge too far and would inappropriately reward lawbreakers; some openly claim that undocumented immigrants, if given the right to vote, would overwhelmingly support Democrats. Supporters of the reform effort want a humane and pragmatic way to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States to contribute to the economy and keep their families together. Almost everyone professes to want those in the country illegally “out of the shadows.”

OK, so what might a middle ground between legalization and citizenship look like? What does “legalization” even mean? And would it be constitutional or fair? Or politically feasible?

On that last count, very probably not.  Democrats are united in saying “citizenship or bust,” saying that they’ll scuttle any bill without a full path to citizenship rights–including voting rights and eligibility to run for public office.

Asked about the idea of legalization without citizenship after a meeting with House Democrats, key Senate leader Chuck Schumer bluntly called such an idea “not American” and said flatly “it will not happen.”

Still, some House Republicans have indicated this week that passing some type of “legalization” might be the only feasible option in the lower chamber.

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For the more conservative members of Congress, legalization could mean some kind of a renewable legal status that would free individuals from the threat of deportation but would include a blanket ban on any formerly undocumented immigrants becoming eligible for citizenship, ever. (Sen. Ted Cruz proposed an amendment to the Senate bill that would have created such a ban; it was defeated in committee negotiations by a 5-13 vote.)

Or, like the Senate-passed legislation, Congress could mandate tough rules for undocumented immigrants that eventually lead to a green card, a stepping stone for those who want to become citizens eventually.

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A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year found that 43 percent of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants should eventually be eligible for citizenship, while 27 percent say they should not be allowed to stay in the country legally at all. But less than a quarter–just 24 percent–say that undocumented immigrants should be permitted to remain in the country permanently but should not be able to become American citizens.

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