Center for American Progress

Lessons from Our Past Should Light the Path of Immigration Reform

Lessons from Our Past Should Light the Path of Immigration Reform

U.S. history provides both shining examples and stark warnings as we debate over whether to grant citizenship to this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When 11-year-old Madeleine Albright came to the United States at the end of World War II, she had already lived in Czechoslovakia—where she was born—Yugoslavia, and England. The future secretary of state and her family had fled the war and the subsequent communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. When the Albrights arrived in England, the authorities told the family they were welcome to stay—until they could return home to Czechoslovakia. As Albright tells the story, her family left England and came to United States instead, where they were welcomed not as guests but as future citizens who had found a home.

Albright’s story may be decades old but it is highly relevant to the immigration debate going on today—and in particular, to the question of whether to grant citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Aspects of the debate may seem technical—particularly those that have to do with different types of legal status—but they reflect a crucial issue regarding the fate of 11 million human beings, as well as the kind of country that we are.

A key part of the debate revolves around “legal status” vs. “citizenship.” The two terms may seem similar but their difference is vast. Providing legal status without a chance to earn citizenship would mean creating a permanent underclass of people who live in our communities, work, and pay taxes while being denied certain basic rights. If you’re not a citizen, you can’t vote. If you’re not a citizen, you’re not eligible for an array of federal programs, even though you contribute to them. If you’re not a citizen, you’re barred from a range of jobs, including those in the military.

Besides being unfair, denying millions of people the right to citizenship is socially and politically disruptive. It is important for each of us to have skin in the game—to know that our investment in this country brings real rewards.

That is what providing a path to earned citizenship does. It offers hope to go along with having skin in the game. Here’s how the process would work. Undocumented immigrants would be required to undergo a series of tasks, including paying back taxes, learning English, passing background checks, and getting in line behind those who have legally applied for permanent residency. As undocumented immigrants do their part, Congress needs to clear the backlog and fix the process so immigrants aren’t forced to wait decades before they can become full American citizens.

The practical benefits of citizenship are clear. We will have stronger and more vibrant communities, increased family security, and expanded political engagement. The economic benefits are also clear. According to a study done by the University of Southern California, naturalized citizens earn 8 percent to 11 percent more money after they become citizens. If even half of our eligible immigrants became citizens, it would add between $21 billion and $45 billion to our economy over the next five years.

In addition to these tangible benefits, there are moral and philosophical benefits of citizenship—namely, the affirmation of our core values as a nation. The current immigration debate raises the question of whether the words on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the poor and tired are still true, or whether we have closed our doors and forgotten the promise of opportunity and equality that marks our national character.

It might help to take a glance back in history and examine a time when we inflicted second-class status on immigrants—with bad results. In the mid-1800s Chinese workers were recruited to the United States to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Their work was hard and dangerous. At one point Chinese workers made up 80 percent of the workers building the railroad, earning lower wages than their Irish counterparts and enduring racial prejudice. California Gov. Leland Stanford (R) called them “the dregs of Asia” in his 1862 inaugural address, and a common belief at the time was that Chinese immigrant workers were racially inferior.

As the Chinese American community grew, so did the backlash against them, with many groups and politicians resenting the increased number of “foreigners.” Chinese immigrants were accused of lowering wages and stealing jobs from white Americans—sound familiar?—and Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, denying citizenship to Chinese immigrants and forbidding them from bringing their families to the United States or from re-entering the country if they left. Harsh amendments were added to the law in later years, broadening exclusions to include all Asians and blocking Chinese Americans born in the United States from returning home if they left the country. These discriminatory laws threw thousands of immigrants into legal limbo, destroyed families, and enshrined racial prejudice into law. Finally, in 1952 the exclusion laws were repealed.

America wronged Chinese immigrant workers whose back-breaking labor helped to make our nation an industrial powerhouse and a world leader. Today, as we face new global challenges and new opportunities, we should learn from past mistakes and pay attention to what we did right. It is never right to arbitrarily exclude an entire class of people who are living, working, and raising their children here from fully belonging to the country they love. It is always right to offer what Madeleine Albright and so many of our ancestors were offered—the opportunity to become an American citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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