Legalization, yes. Citizenship, no.
Ross K. Baker
6:18 p.m. EDT June 10, 2013
Naturalization is a precious gift. So why grant it to those who didn't play by the rules?
There is something for almost everybody in the Senate's immigration bill, which was recently approved by the Judiciary Committee and is headed for the floor this week. At more than 1,000 pages, it lives up to its boast of being "comprehensive."
There is something for the high-tech industry in expanded H-1B visas that ease the way into this country for foreign techies.
There is a generous allowance of temporary workers for agribusiness. Big labor and big business sat down months ago and decided how many construction workers would be allowed in — not so many as to deluge unionized labor and not so few as to disappoint the American business community's thirst for cheap labor.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., even got a generous visa allowance for foreign ski instructors.
What about public interest?
The interest that was not served in this giant auction, however, was the public interest and the values that we purport to uphold.
There is a lofty term in common use among conservatives who oppose the kind of reform that is making its way through the Senate. The phrase is "rule of law." Translated into every day speech it means "playing by the rules," a principle deeply embedded in our culture. You don't jump the line. You don't shortchange. And if you do, you shouldn't expect to be rewarded for it. The reward, in the case of the comprehensive immigration bill, comes in the form of "a pathway to citizenship."
Citizenship is the most precious gift that America can confer. For many people outside our borders, it is equivalent to winning a megabucks lottery. So why are members of the Senate so determined to grant it to people who did not play by the rules?
Democrats want to reward a constituency that has proved itself both loyal and influential. Republicans see it as a form of damage control, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Hispanic voters whom they have systematically alienated. Each party sees a political dividend in creating millions of new voters who could be registered upon receiving citizenship.
But conservatives might have a good point. Why confer an unmerited reward of citizenship on those who entered the country illegally?
Proponents of a path to citizenship argue on their behalf that they are living "in the shadows." But bringing them out into the sun light can be accomplished by legalization and registration. Our security will be enhanced because we will then know who and where they are. They will be spared from deportation and able to lead normal lives. For most, legal resident alien status will be enough. It is unlikely that removing the path to citizenship will cause many to pull up stakes and return to their native country.
DREAMers are exception
Now, there are about 2 million people judged as illegal who are completely blameless and should be placed on an expedited path to citizenship: the people brought to this country as children by illegally entering parents. For them, called the DREAMers after the DREAM Act, the shadows need to be lifted. They are certainly worthy of citizenship, much like non-citizens who served in the U.S. military after 9/11.
While lawmakers are at it, they might want to reassert the validity of the birthright provision of the 14th Amendment, which states that those born in the USA are citizens. Enough of the disparaging term "anchor babies," used by those who quibble with the amendment's plain language. They are our babies because they were born on our soil.
A long road ahead
The immigration process still has a long way to go. It will be subject to amendment on the floor of the Senate and then be taken up by the House, where many Republicans consider the citizenship provision objectionable.
Rather the risk losing the bill in its entirety, senators should be prepared to abandon the path to citizenship portion when they sit down with their House colleagues.
To endow a pathway that began in a violation of the law with the gift of citizenship is to venture down a road of moral hazard and perverse incentives that invites the gaming of the system.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.