Leaving too many behind: path to citizenship should be widened


The Senate immigration bill introduced recently contains much to cheer about, including a path to citizenship for the large majority of undocumented persons in the country. The so-called “Gang of Eight” senators, including Florida’s Marco Rubio, have fashioned a bill which, while not perfect, significantly improves upon the status quo and moves the nation forward.

I am curious, however, why the senators might take what some may consider the risky political step of giving the undocumented a shot at citizenship but then exclude a large number who would benefit from it. This is exactly what the Senate bill, and the path to citizenship included in it, does. The reasoning here seems illogical, especially from someone looking from the outside.

If the goal is to solve the problem of illegal immigration — and thus remove the issue from the political table — then why not bring the maximum number of persons out of the shadows? Why leave a residual population behind, one which the nation would have to deal with eventually?

Let me explain.

• First, the path to citizenship is a lengthy 13 years — nearly a generation. No doubt any citizenship ceremonies for this population would not occur for a few years longer, as backlogs are cleared and the rush of citizenship applications is adjudicated. Such a lengthy time period would likely discourage many from staying the course, especially with the other requirements in the bill, including high fines and processing fees.

The bill also disqualifies persons who are unemployed for more than a sixty-day period during the ten-year period prior to qualifying for a green card. Given the seasonal work of many migrants, this requirement could reduce even further the number of persons eligible.

• Second, the Senate bill cuts off eligibility for the program for those who arrive after December 31, 2011, likely more than 18 months after the enactment of any bill. By some estimates, this could leave nearly 400,000 immigrants hiding in the shadows. Some have suggested that these immigrants should be deported, with the number left behind about equal to the numbers deported each year by the Obama Administration. However, the likelihood that those remaining would become easy targets for deportation is not high — they would likely retreat deeper into the shadows or, in desperation, find ways to fraudulently qualify for the program.

• Lastly, the bill leaves out poor migrants who live at or near the poverty line, requiring that migrants must show assets at the poverty line for provisional legal status and at 125 percent of the poverty line for permanent residence. Knowing the low wages many migrants earn, this could exclude the most vulnerable, particularly families. Since no one in the new program would qualify for government benefits until they became citizens, it is almost mean-spirited to condemn them to second-class status because of their income level.

The “Gang of Eight” has done admirable work in fashioning their legislation and is wise to feature a path to citizenship in their bill. We should not have a permanent underclass in this country. However, their bill fails to ensure that it will bring everyone out into the light, leaving the job unfinished and for others down the line to address.

Polls show that the large majority of Americans support a path to citizenship and that they want Congress to fix the broken immigration system. They do not want to revisit this issue anytime soon — they want it solved. They also want immigrants in the legal system sooner rather than later, so that they possess the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

If Congress follows the wisdom of their constituents, they will make the path to citizenship less bumpy and more accessible, so that no one is left behind.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski heads the Archdiocese of Miami.

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