Politics & Policy

A Path to Legal Status but Not Citizenship

Oath and American flag at a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles in 2013. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
It would keep families together but still hold those who have violated immigration laws accountable.

Immigration reform is an issue that Washington can’t seem to address. Few disagree on beefing up security at the nation’s borders. But politicians part ways when discussing how to handle the country’s 11 million undocumented workers, who have either overstayed their visas or entered without permission. The resulting gridlock has left them in limbo for decades.

For the Left, the solution is to create a path to citizenship. Many arguments are made to support it. Undocumented workers pay their taxes, though in many cases because it may help them gain legal status. And undocumented workers have been here a long time without ever having had a legal right to establish permanent residence, but set that fact aside for the moment. The weakest rationale for granting them a path to citizenship is this: that they have toiled hard on American soil, contributing to the national economy. They have, but they have done so by violating the nation’s immigration laws. The end doesn’t justify the means.

So what’s the solution?

Government could get tough on those who hire undocumented workers. Stiffer penalties would mean fewer job prospects for the job seekers. And studies show there there is a net outflow of workers when available jobs are scarce. But businesses want migrant labor, and immigration enforcement has long been overlooked to make sure they get it. Many rightly note that parked on America’s doorstep is a sign that reads “Keep Out” on one side and, on the other, “Help Wanted.”

This hypocrisy has augmented the problem of mixed-status families: cases in which some family members — most notably, children — have the legal right to be here while others do not. Nearly 5 million American kids have at least one undocumented parent. Confronting that reality means accepting that forced deportations, long touted as a solution, are socially unviable. They are also fiscally irresponsible. One estimate pegs the cost of deporting 11 million people at over $400 billion.

A more pragmatic solution would be to offer a path to legalization that stops short of citizenship. That would meet the humanitarian imperative to keep families together. But it would also hold those who have violated immigration laws accountable for their actions. This would apply only to undocumented workers who were of legal age when they entered the United States; those who were not of legal age should be given a citizenship path identical to the one that is available to legal immigrants.

Except for those who were born on American soil, citizenship is not a right. It’s a privilege. A path short of citizenship sends a powerful message to America’s legal-immigrant community, whose members have worked tirelessly to follow existing immigration guidelines. There is a rule of law, and citizenship is granted to those who follow it.

A path short of citizenship would assuage Republican concerns that immigration reform would hurt the GOP. Many undocumented workers hail from Latin America, and Latinos have long favored Democrats over Republicans. Some Republicans worry that granting these workers a path to citizenship would tip the future balance of political power. That may sound petty, and it is. But it is also a political reality.

Withholding citizenship, the Left will argue, creates a working class who will never truly feel that America is their home. Citizenship, they maintain, holds the key to becoming a “full and open member of American society.” Yet a significant number of legal immigrants who can naturalize don’t. They have pursued an education, own homes, and have forged links in American society. Not being citizens hasn’t stopped them from claiming their piece of the American dream. Why would it be any different for undocumented workers?

The fact that not all legal immigrants claim American citizenship challenges another liberal argument: that citizenship increases wages. Many advocates of a path to citizenship tout studies that show that when immigrants naturalize, earnings increase — by as much as 25 percent, according to one account. If that were true, wouldn’t all eligible immigrants line up for American passports? Wage increases, after all, would be a powerful a powerful incentive.

The reality is that evidence linking citizenship to wage increases is weak. Researchers often mix legal noncitizens with undocumented workers when looking at earnings — an approach that skews results in favor of the liberal position. More important, many studies don’t control for occupational choice. The salaries of physicians who are American citizens will always be higher than those of secretaries who are legal noncitizens. Nationality has little to do with it. Choice of profession does.

Citizenship can improve wages by offering access to jobs previously off limits. These include high-paying public- and private-sector positions that require security clearances. But they also require advanced education and skills training. As a whole, undocumented workers, nearly half of whom haven’t graduated high school, are ill equipped for such employment. And suggestions that immigrants tend to pursue higher education as a consequence of enjoying citizenship are not backed up by hard data.

One thing is certain. The needs of America’s changing economy cannot be met by laws that haven’t been touched in 25 years. Overhauling the nation’s immigration system requires a dose of pragmatism. And the current occupant of the White House, as unconventional as he may seem, might just be the one to deliver.

— Ashley Nunes writes on work-force productivity, regulatory policy, and behavioral economics.




The Latest