Center for American Progress

Piecemeal Immigration Proposals Miss the Point: A Path to Citizenship Is a Political and Policy Imperative

Piecemeal Immigration Proposals Miss the Point: A Path to Citizenship Is a Political and Policy Imperative

Addressing the undocumented population should be the core of any comprehensive immigration reform. Ignoring this population will neither address the key issues nor help parties gain political favor.

Grecia Lima, left, cheers as Maria Durand, second from left, brings her early voting ballot as they join members of Promise Arizona in Action in announcing their voter registration drive with Latino youth at a news conference, Thursday, October 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
Grecia Lima, left, cheers as Maria Durand, second from left, brings her early voting ballot as they join members of Promise Arizona in Action in announcing their voter registration drive with Latino youth at a news conference, Thursday, October 25, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

In the immediate wake of historic losses with Latino voters in this year’s presidential election, numerous Republican political advisors and lawmakers did one of the most dramatic policy about-faces in recent memory: They embraced policy reforms that would legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Coming from the party that ran on an immigration platform of “self-deportation,” this U-turn was enough to give the casual observer whiplash. But the political course correction was inevitable for Republicans hoping to seriously compete for the vote of Latinos—the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

Although this new political roadmap should bode well for immigration reform in the next Congress, it faces obstacles from some lawmakers who have failed to fully internalize the implications of the election and the policy challenges facing the country. These lawmakers—awkwardly including two Latinos, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID)—suggest that Congress should start with incremental changes, like DREAM Act-Lite proposals, that they claim are easier to pass. This approach, however, fundamentally misses the point.

Both the politics and the policy of immigration reform demand a broader strategy. The foremost priority for any proposal is creating a legislative track for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to earn the privilege of citizenship. Politically, anything short of that will fail to rehabilitate the Republican Party’s brand with Latinos; indeed it will only perpetuate the party’s image problem. And from a policy perspective, it will fail to correct the systemic dysfunction that has led to 5 percent of the U.S. workforce being undocumented.

This column delves into the specifics of why a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is the correct solution from both the political and policy perspectives.

The politics

What Republican Party leaders openly acknowledged after the election was that their party’s demonization of undocumented immigrants both rhetorically and through policy proposals had alienated the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Latinos comprised an estimated 11 percent of the electorate in 2012 and their influence in swing states is only growing. Exit polling found that a record-breaking 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama in this election. Meanwhile, 60 percent of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented and one-quarter know someone who is either facing deportation or has been deported. In both California and Nevada, a combined 67 percent of Latino voters said they have a friend, family member, or co-worker who lacks legal status. Rhetorical and policy attacks on undocumented immigrants are therefore seen as attacks on the entire Latino community. And the only way to change that relationship is to reverse the party’s policy prescriptions for undocumented immigrants.

But some members of Congress seem to think that taking baby steps in that direction will suffice. Take, for example, the ACHIEVE Act, introduced by lame-duck Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). Their bill only deals with a smaller segment of the undocumented population than would have been protected under the DREAM Act. And even then, the proposal provides an inadequate solution by failing to create a path for these individuals to earn permanent residence and citizenship, the way the DREAM Act would. In other words, the bill offers a best-case scenario of a lifetime as a second-class citizen.

In the wake of the presidential election, such a proposal demonstrates a striking level of tone deafness. First off, it is wildly insufficient for purposes of reforming the party’s brand with Latinos. Touting a regressive, watered-down version of the DREAM Act—a policy that once had bipartisan support—is no way to earn back the trust of a community that the party has alienated. But the proposal is also out of step with the American public at large, 62 percent of which is in favor of providing a pathway to citizenship for our 11 million undocumented immigrants, according to a poll conducted last week by Politico and The George Washington University. In fact, Americans of every political stripe support unleashing immigrants’ potential by putting them on a path to citizenship, including Republican voters—more Republican voters support a path to citizenship (49 percent) for the entire undocumented population than oppose it (45 percent).

More to the point, these lawmakers’ rationale for focusing on just a subset of the undocumented population is destined to ensure that Republicans remain at odds with these voters for the foreseeable future. The lawmakers’ argument for protecting undocumented youth is that they are blameless because they were brought to the United States by adults and without any say in the matter.

This justification constructs a paradigm of good versus bad undocumented immigrants—one that pits children against their parents. But the recent summit of DREAM Act youth highlights why this type of division will get no traction. DREAM Act youth unanimously agreed to fight for “fair treatment for DREAMers and our families and communities, including a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million Americans without papers and an end to senseless deportations and abuses.” Furthermore, it’s clear that voters won’t be wooed by such transparent attempts. As SEIU’s Eliseo Medina put it, “Latinos aren’t fooled by such measures that reward one set of immigrants over others and, most importantly, don’t provide a path to citizenship for individuals who are every bit American.”

It is a gross miscalculation on the part of these legislators to believe that supporting partial legalization of only 10 percent to 15 percent of the undocumented population can rehabilitate the party’s image. The Latino community—indeed the U.S. public writ large—wants this entire issue addressed once and for all. By continuing their rhetorical and policy assault on the other 85 percent to 90 percent of the undocumented population, the only thing these legislators will accomplish is to keep the spotlight trained on the party’s estranged relationship with this community.

The four Republican senators who have entered into negotiations with Democrats on an overhaul of the immigration system clearly understand that it is time to rip the Band-Aid off and attempt immigration reform in one sweeping measure. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) understands this as well. Just days after the election, he said a “comprehensive approach is long overdue,” and it is. A slow piecemeal strategy of peeling off subsets will only prolong the painful road to reconciliation with this community.

The policy

More importantly, this incremental approach won’t solve the real-world complications related to undocumented immigration, ensuring that the problem will only continue to grow and fester. It is past time that we deal with this issue in a fulsome way that promotes economic growth and restores stability to our communities.

The only constants in our nation’s immigration policy over the last 10 years have been massive increases in border and interior enforcement efforts. We have spent a king’s ransom on immigration enforcement in service of a policy designed to detect, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. This single-minded strategy has been economically and fiscally counterproductive.

By separating literally millions of people from their families, we have undermined the economic security and stability of our communities. And to what end? We still have 11 million undocumented immigrants living here. More than two-thirds have lived here for more than a decade, and 45 percent of undocumented immigrant households are composed of couples with children. They are American residents in all but their paperwork.

Even states like Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, which have adopted harsh enforcement policies in an effort to drive undocumented immigrants from the country, aren’t seeing any success. Research shows that immigrants living in states that have chosen to persecute them have by and large stayed put and moved deeper into the shadows or moved to neighboring states with more welcoming laws. The result of these laws has been deeper division and fear, as well as massive economic losses.

Now is the time for Congress to enact common-sense reforms that puts these immigrants on a path to citizenship so they can realize their potential and contribute more completely to the success of our country. As we have demonstrated elsewhere, bringing these immigrants off the economic sidelines would generate $1.5 trillion in cumulative GDP over 10 years. And it would add around $5 billion in federal tax revenues over the next three years. Just as importantly, enabling these hardworking immigrants to fully participate in the civic life of the country will strengthen our communities while leveling the economic playing field to the benefit of all U.S. workers. Everyone except exploitive employers and criminal syndicates benefit by having these workers squarely in the economic fold.

And if those reasons were not enough on their own, we have highlighted elsewhere that the failure to deal realistically with our undocumented immigrants has impeded our ability to fully address other important national issues like health care, education, taxes, benefits, and identification.

A final policy point regarding citizenship: Some members of Congress have essentially accepted that we need policies legalizing all of our undocumented immigrants but have balked at creating a path to earned citizenship. Setting aside the potentially cynical impetus for this limitation—noncitizens equal nonvoters, thus lending the proposal so political incentive—such a policy would subvert the nation’s self-interest in a well-integrated, fully participatory citizenry. Immigrants who become citizens improve their economic position in society to the benefit of all Americans. If the 8.5 million legal permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize did so, they would see an 8 percent to 11 percent boost in wages, leading to a $21 billion to $45 billion cumulative increase in wages, which would then ripple through the economy, creating significant gains overall.


Congress has an opportunity to reform our immigration system, but it will require bipartisan support for legislation that, most importantly, puts undocumented immigrants on a path to earned citizenship. And Republicans have an opportunity to be part of the solution while resetting their relationship with ethnic voters. But to do so, they will need to blow by those in their party who remain fixated on playing small ball.

Marshall Fitz is the Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow