Immigration Reform 2013: Path to Citizenship Will Kill the Bill


Now that immigration reform is heating up (or dying) in the House, it's time to take a closer look at the main reason why it doesn't have a good chance of getting through — the "path to citizenship." 

The main problem with the so-called "path to citizenship" is that there is no way to successfully sell it to many conservative voters. Anyone involved or just interested in politics knows that bills get passed in one of two ways, either through an overwhelming majority or through compromise. In this case, supporters of a bill that includes the path to citizenship do not have a majority in the House so if they want it to pass they will have to compromise.

The bill getting through the Senate with Republican support was not really a surprise. The reason for that is that Democrats have a majority and Republicans are not foolish enough to create a PR nightmare over something that will pass in the Senate anyway. What was a surprise is that they supported the all or nothing approach this bill takes regarding illegal immigrants and citizenship. There are several problems created by the path to citizenship that could have easily been avoided with a slightly different approach.

The first problem is that even though border security has been addressed with additional funding and more border patrol agents, the bill does not guarantee that the money will be spent or the agents hired. The bill clearly states that a 90% apprehension rate must be reached before any of the undocumented immigrants can apply for citizenship; however it doesn't define as clearly what happens if the rate is not achieved. What would happen in case of failure is another commission is created to take over border security. What happens if the second commission fails? Not defined in the bill. The carrot or the stick approach only works if both are present; here the stick is clearly missing.

A second problem created by the bill is that giving full citizenship to people who broke the law will serve as motivation for future lawbreakers to enter the country. Granting citizenship sends a clear message that once undocumented immigrants become a large enough group the government would be forced to give in to their demands. This will create a perpetual problem the U.S. would have to deal with every so often. If immigration reform is to be successful, the government cannot simply give in and grant full citizenship rights.

The third and probably most important issue is that passing this bill would be political suicide for many Republicans. Telling House Republicans to sell a bill with path to citizenship to their constituents is like giving a loaded gun to a Russian-roulette player, they can play the game but chances of survival are low. What the Senate bill has done is force the House Republicans into a corner by forcing them to either risk their jobs to pass a bill that their constituents don't support, or face a PR nightmare when they kill it. How many people would risk their job when they are not forced to?  Yet many Democrats and undocumented immigrants and their families are asking just that of the House Republicans. Given the situation they are in, the Republicans' reaction should come as no surprise to anyone.

All of this could have been avoided if the Senate had passed a bill that did not include a path to citizenship and had more border security guarantees. For most immigrants the end goal is to receive the right to legally live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation with citizenship being the cherry on top. So why go all out and demand a path to citizenship when a path to permanent residency will do. One of the first things House Republicans said, after the Senate passed the bill, was that path to citizenship is out of the question but a path to residency is an option. The Senate response to that? Citizenship or nothing.  

In the following months we'll see whether the Republicans are indeed interested in compromise, as they've said and if Democrats are serious about immigration reform, or if they just want the new votes gained by granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants. Immigration reform and legalizing illegal immigrants is something that could be achieved this year but the politicians need to show willingness to compromise instead of playing political games for more votes.