The Non-Citizenship Trap

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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 GOP legislators said the biggest question was whether to give the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States a path to eventual citizenship, as provided by the Senate measure.–CNN, July 11

For months, Democrats have been saying they won’t agree to an immigration bill unless it has a “path to citizenship.” Reporters wrote it down. Many Republicans have also been saying the key sticking point is over the “path to citizenship”–they oppose it. Reporters wrote that down too, and declared  “citizenship” the big line-in-sand battleground in the immigration debate.

The only problem is, this was BS.  Citizenship isn’t the big dealbreaker issue. That’s because Democrats would ultimately–reluctantly, of course–accept a bill that did not give illegal immigrants a “path to citizenship” if it gave Dems what they really want, namely quick legal status before any new enforcement measures must be in place.  Legalization gives the undocumented most of what they need from immigration refom–they can work, get driver’s licenses, etc. without fear of ICE. And if the legalization comes before enforcement,  not only wouldn’t the undocumented have to wait very long, but Democrats would have the chance to water down the enforcement as soon as the the undocumented were in the clear (as Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, did after the 1986 reform).

Legalization First–that’s the real dealbreaker issue for Dems.

This has become obvious in the past few days, as the Democratic “citizenship” wall has started to show cracks–for example, Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) declaring on MSNBC that “there’s always room for debate” on whether mere legalization might substitute for citizenship.**  Meanwhile, Democratic bloggers have begun to urge the legalization-without-citizenship course on Republicans, while Democratic Hill types concede that it might work, and a key Republican, House Judicary chair Bob Goodlatte has appeared to endorse a non-citizenship approach–with the added wrinkle that those legalized could still try to get on a path to citizenship through various already-existing guest worker programs (there just wouldn’t be a “special” path to citizenship–a distinction emphasized by HuffPo’s Jon Ward earlier this week). Republican Rep. Raul Labrador emerged from the House GOP’s Wednesday loya jirga having practically negotiated the final conference report in his head, declaring he thinks “we’ll get to a pathway similar to a H1-B visa for folks here but no special pathway to citizenship for undocumented.”

So done deal? Everybody happy? Dems get what they want, while Republicans, with the press having made “citizenship” the big issue, can boast they won a big concession if legalization stops short of explicitly creating a “path.” ***

The only problem is that non-citizenship legalization is a disaster. Do you worry that immigration reform might create a new magnet for illegal immigration? Well, legalization creates almost as big a magnet as citizenship. (‘Look at the people that went up north a decade ago. They got to stay! They’re legal! Their kids are American citizens.’) Do you worry about the effects of expanded and uncontrolled low-skilled immigration on the wages of Americans who do similar basic, unskilled work? An increased supply of unskilled legal workers will drive down wages at the bottom as effectively as unskilled citizen workers. And if the legalization precedes enforcement, the enforcement designed to prevent further waves of unskilled immigrants is likely to never happen.

For Republicans, the non-citizenship path pushed by Labrador and others is arguably the worst of both worlds. They not only lose the immigration fight–alienating both their conservative base and the white non-college voters who abandoned them in the 2012 election. They also give Democrats an opportunity to bash them relentlessly for making millions of Latinos into formal second-class residents. (As Mark Krikorian notes, Dem activists already have a name for itJuan Cuervo.) They’d immediately forfeit the big prize they were supposed to win by caving on immigration–the Latino vote. In effect, the GOP would be buying itself a decade of ethnic skirmishes–during which they’d be branded as racists, while the mostly Democratic Latino vote would be pumped up, and which they would ultimately lose. Eventually, it’s likely that all the undocumented immigrants denied an explicit “path to citizenship” in this year’s legislation would be granted it anyway.

With the emergence of the “non-citizenship” scenario, we’ve probably identified the point of greatest vulnerability for opponents of a “Legalize First” approach to immigration. Speaker Boehner has promised his caucus he’ll adhere to the so-called “Hastert Rule”–that is, he won’t move legislation to the floor unless a majority of Republicans support it.  It’s doubtful he can get a majority for “citizenship.” But could a majority of Republicans support a “Legalize First” bill if it stopped at legalization?  As Boehner said on Thursday, “We’re gonna find out.”

The answer will depend, in large part, on the amount of grief Republican congresspersons get when they test out a “legalize-only” strategy while mingling with their constituents over the August recess. I urge readers to give them a lot.


**–See also Hoyer, Steny, “I don’t want to preclude …” 

***–It’s almost as if this were the outcome of a carefully choreographed drama, in which Democrats, Republicans and the press all play their part in making a big deal out of the “citizenship” issue, the better to ultimately achieve their real goal, legalization. Someone should come up with a word for this sort of highly stylized performance. Maybe there are some foreign analogues.

Mickey Kaus