Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

Immigration reform: Does citizenship vs. legalization really matter?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Joe Lawler of RealClearPolicy has a really great interview with Peter Skerry, an immigration expert who advocates a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants (as Jeb Bush does) rather than citizenship (as Marco Rubio does). In the end, he says, most of the undocumented won’t become citizens:

And let me make another point about the two proposals that are now floating around — the Gang of Eight’s proposal and what Gov. Bush offered in his book before he started backpedaling in the past couple of days. … In fact I noticed in the Wall Street Journal today that Congressman Raul Labrador basically said that he and his colleagues see these two proposals as more or less the same thing.

What I believe the congressman is suggesting is that both proposals are going to lead to the same effective outcome for most undocumented – that is, legal residency but probably not citizenship. In other words, I believe that lawmakers understand that no matter what version they enact – the Gang of Eight’s “path to citizenship” or some form of permanent legal status without citizenship, most undocumented will never become citizens.

In this sense, the “path to citizenship” is an illusory promise, or a likely unattained goal, that will leave many in a kind of limbo of indecision and unmet bureaucratic requirements. Either that, or all those requirements will not be enforced rigorously and will in effect be a sham, in which case the outrage of Americans will be rekindled anew.  …

One reason I believe this is our experience with the 1986 IRCA amnesty. I’m not saying this current effort is an amnesty, but it is similar in the sense that we opened the gates up to 2.7 million people, who were eligible first to become permanent legal residents – green card holders – and then to become citizens. It’s rather striking that today, almost 25 years later, barely 40 percent of all those 2.7 million people have gone on to become citizens. Sixty percent chose to remain as green card holders. I think that has to tell you something about how such individuals see the world, what they’re willing to settle for, and their own intentions about how fervently they want to become U.S. citizens. It seems to me the evidence indicates that most people who are here illegally aren’t so focused on citizenship.

Now, this doesn’t mean the issue is irrelevant. Bush argues (still?) that offering the possibility of citizenship not only breaks down the rule but creates an incentive for another 11 million undocumented immigrants to come to America. (Though Mexico’s improving economy makes the chances of that less likely.) On the other hand, Americans seems to prefer the “path to citizenship” option. I think the momentum here is definitely in the direction of the Rubio option.

Update: One more thing. I wonder if a much higher proportion of legalized immigrants would become citizens this time around given that a) Democrats view them as Democrats in waiting and b) Democrats have an incredibly sophisticated political machine, as we saw in 2012.

3 thoughts on “Immigration reform: Does citizenship vs. legalization really matter?

  1. I support the legalization of undocumented provided all qualifications are met. We don’t need to offer law breakers an easy path to citizenship. Also, NO govt benes until and unless they become CITIZENS. NO EXCEPTIONS.

  2. Forbidden-fruit effect. The Class of ’86 may have shown apathy and procrastination towards citizenship, but take the option away, and guess what? It will become a big deal faster than you can exclaim, “I thought we took this issue off the table…!” Simple human nature.

    Do the Rs really want to create a _new_ grievance that will keep immigrants’ U.S. citizen children united in suspicion of them, while doing little to discourage future amnesty-seekers?

    Lesson: the reach of your immigration policy should never exceed its ability to make immigrants feel welcome and civically engaged.

  3. Do the Rs really want to create a _new_ grievance that will keep immigrants’ U.S. citizen children united in suspicion of them, while doing little to discourage future amnesty-seekers?“…

    Why should we make it easier to import parasites?

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