Those 11 million illegal immigrants — what’s the policy sweet spot between outright amnesty and deportation? A smart National Affairs piece tries to split the difference. It suggests granting the undocumented a new status as ”permanent non-citizen residents.” Unlike legal permanent residents or green-card holders, permanent non-citizen residents would be prohibited from ever becoming eligible for naturalization.
But Marco Rubio has decided not to go that way. As sketched out to The Wall Street Journal, Rubio would create a path to eventual citizenship:
“Here’s how I envision it,” he says. “They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check.” Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. “They would be fingerprinted,” he continues. “They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country.”
The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. “Assuming they haven’t violated any of the conditions of that status,” he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn’t specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate.
The waiting time for a green card “would have to be long enough to ensure that it’s not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way,” he says. “But it can’t be indefinite either. I mean it can’t be unrealistic, because then you’re not really accomplishing anything. It’s not good for our country to have people trapped in this status forever. It’s been a disaster for Europe.”
Certainly the political math supports Rubio’s position. A Politico/GWU Battleground poll from December found that Americans, by a 62%-35% margin, support allowing “illegal or undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship over a period of several years.” Likewise, an ABC/Washington Post poll from November found 57% of those surveyed favor creating a path to citizenship, with 39% opposed. Among Hispanics, 82% favored a path to citizenship, a number which seems pretty stable. A 2010 Pew poll found that among Latinos, about 82% of the native born and 90% of the foreign born say they support providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
So Rubio is making the politically smart play, at least on a broad, national level. But something he might want to consider is whether the path to citizenship should be optional. That same National Affairs piece notes that a quarter century after the 1980s amnesty, only 41% of the nearly 2.7 million individuals who became legal permanent residents had gone on to exercise the option to naturalize. “In other words, when offered the chance to become citizens, the overwhelming majority of the undocumented have settled for less.”
Maybe we shouldn’t let them settle for less. Instead, perhaps all green card holders should face a time limit on applying for citizenship or face a loss of privileges. And achieving citizenship, becoming an American, shouldn’t be easy. For starters, demand that prospective citizens have to complete certified classes in American history and civics, as National Affairs editor Yuval Levin has suggested. Assimilation must be at the heart of immigration reform, a requirement just as important as securing the borders.
But the Rubio plan is a thoughtful, solid start, and I look forward to hearing more details, including the parts concerning legal immigration, high-skill and otherwise.