Undocumented Immigrants Need a Path to Citizenship

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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.

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