Faith communities have for many years been on the front lines calling for immigration reform on behalf of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, setting forth powerful moral imperatives for a system that protects our families, strengthens our communities, and ensures a more just and equitable society. Now that President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators have both outlined their principles for immigration reform, faith leaders are adding their resources and voices to the national debate about how best to fix America’s broken immigration system.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, are still divided over several key issues—especially the issue of citizenship. Providing a clear pathway to citizenship should be a core component of any reform legislation, but while many faith groups have placed citizenship at the forefront of their advocacy, other groups—both religious and political conservatives—have not yet made their positions on citizenship clear.
This difference between legalization and citizenship matters: A pathway to citizenship would allow undocumented immigrants to earn the full rights and privileges enjoyed by most Americans, whereas legal residency would restrict them to a permanent second-class status. Thus, any proposal without a viable pathway to citizenship for our nation’s undocumented immigrants—even if it includes legalization through guest worker visas or other mechanisms—will only perpetuate the injustices that faith leaders fight against every day.
Drawing upon values shared across religious traditions—family, community, opportunity, equality, and justice—here are five reasons why communities of faith should call for immigration reform that includes a viable pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
American families will be reunited, stronger, and more stable
Today 16.6 million people belong to mixed-status families with at least one U.S. citizen and one undocumented member, many of whom are parents or heads of household. These families endure heartaches unthinkable to most Americans: They are divided when undocumented parents and siblings are detained and deported. Family ties are strained when children and spouses are forced to wait for years—or even decades—to enter the country. Even worse, entire families are disrupted when both parents are deported, forcing children into foster and adoption services.
A clear pathway to citizenship, unlike a work permit or lesser legal status, will help end these kinds of separations and ensure family stability and unity. Citizens, for instance, are allowed to sponsor a noncitizen spouse immediately for a green card, whereas permanent legal residents often have to wait years to be able to sponsor a husband or wife for similar status. Family members are crucial in helping immigrants set down roots in this nation, and with more than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants having lived here for more than 10 years, the time has come to create a path to citizenship that allows these new American families to live without fear of separation.
American communities will be more integrated, safer, and healthier
Many undocumented immigrants are forced to live in the shadows, afraid to fully participate in their communities and worried about day-to-day tasks such as taking their children to school, going to the doctor, or reporting crimes to the police for fear of revealing their expired or undocumented status. Studies have found that in countries where immigration policies provide options for citizenship, immigrants are more fully integrated into society and have a greater sense of attachment to the nation.
Communities are also safer when its members feel free to report crimes and build relationships with law enforcement—which is less likely to occur when immigrants have undocumented or nonpermanent status because they fear that their status will be discovered. Communities are stronger when all their members can share the civic responsibilities of citizens—when new Americans can become teachers and nurses, join volunteer efforts, and become community leaders.
Naturalized citizens have greater access to economic mobility, benefiting American workers and our economy
Creating a path to citizenship will open opportunities for upward mobility that have long been denied to undocumented immigrants. A December 2012 study by Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins of the University of Southern California found that citizenship—as opposed to being undocumented or even claiming a lesser legal status—leads to 8 percent to 11 percent higher wages for naturalized immigrants both immediately and over the long term. Higher wages increase consumer spending, which in turn sends positive ripples through the American economy. According to the study, if only half of those eligible became citizens, it would add $21 billion to $45 billion to the U.S. economy over the next 10 years.
Legal status without citizenship, by contrast, does not offer the same opportunities to America’s undocumented immigrants. Under the current immigration system, for example, undocumented immigrants are frequently unable to access the high-paying jobs available to citizens because employers are concerned that noncitizen workers could be deported. While legalization might offer a modicum of assurance to employers, the continued risk of deportation for legal residents means that citizenship is unique in its ability to offer upward mobility. A system that privileges legalization over citizenship would continue to force millions into lower-paying jobs and allow unscrupulous employers to keep labor costs as low as possible and undercut all American workers—legal or not.
Providing a viable pathway to citizenship promotes equality
A clear pathway to citizenship for America’s undocumented immigrants is about more than words on paper—it’s about creating a more equal America. Declaring someone a fellow citizen acknowledges their full human worth both culturally and legally, and formalizes their status as an equal participant in society.
Legalization alone does not create this kind of equality, nor would any piece of legislation that lacks a viable pathway to citizenship. Some lawmakers, for example, have called for undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship through the current immigration system—after those who have come to the country legally. This could result in decades-long wait times for people seeking citizenship, effectively creating a subclass of permanent legal residents without access to basic privileges that citizens enjoy every day. Indeed, to say that these 11 million people would be treated as second-class citizens under this system is a misnomer; they wouldn’t even be granted the title of citizen, much less the benefits of citizenship such as basic legal protections and the right to vote.
Citizenship is a justice issue
Ultimately, providing a pathway to citizenship for these 11 million undocumented immigrants is about establishing justice. Indeed, faith-based advocates for a pathway to citizenship are quick to note that granting equal status to newcomers—not just a legal substatus—echoes a concept of justice shared across faith traditions. The Hebrew Bible, for instance, insists, “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). The Jesus of the Christian New Testament urges Christians to welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40). The Qur’an explains that faithful Muslims are those who are “good to … those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet” (4:36). And the Hindu Upanishads note, “The guest is a representative of God” (1.11.2).
What’s more, providing a pathway to citizenship isn’t only reflective of religious concepts of justice—it’s also rooted in American values. To offer anything less than a viable pathway to citizenship is to perpetuate an unjust vision of America. A just America does not look the other way while its communities are fractured and live in fear, nor does it turn a blind eye to families as they are torn apart or pretend not to notice when workers are paid less-than-equal wages. Most importantly, a just America does not stand idly by while an unequal subclass is created on its own soil.
As the debate over immigration heats up in the coming weeks and months, faith groups must continue to draw upon these and other shared values and call for a path to citizenship for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Faith communities, similar to most Americans, understand that truly comprehensive immigration reform creates a more perfect union—one where families are protected, communities are strengthened, opportunity is preserved, equality is maintained, and justice is established for all. Creating a viable pathway to citizenship helps secure this vision for future generations, and faith communities have an opportunity to add their organizations and their voices to the chorus of those calling for real, transformative immigration reform.
Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Eleni Towns is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.