For Immigration Reform to Work, We Need More Green Cards and Clear Path to Citizenship

February 04, 2013

By Victor C Johnson

President Obama and the Senate bipartisan "Gang of Eight" have laid down their markers for legislation to overhaul our nation’s immigration laws. The president’s plan is stronger because it provides a clear and unambiguous path to legal permanent residency and citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet agreed eligibility criteria and because the president’s plan would make the additional green cards available that this commitment would require.

The bipartisan Senate framework, which NAFSA analyzed in a January 28 statement, provides fundamentally the same path, but would not permit undocumented immigrants to embark on the path until the border is in some vague and undefined sense “secure,” and not until “completion” of an entry-exit system—two conditions which are beyond immigrants’ control and might be impossible to meet. In addition, the framework is silent on the green card issue—a key omission because, without more green cards, the “line,” to which everyone agrees the undocumented immigrants must “go to the back,” would stretch into infinity.

Despite the deficiencies of the bipartisan framework, the fact that it exists at all is an important advance. Once a bipartisan group in the House introduces its bill, we will have vehicles in both houses that will provide the basis for an immigration debate that we haven’t had since 2007. A legislative process can begin, and a constructive outcome is possible.

The immigration debate will doubtless follow an unpredictable path over the course of the year—and possibly beyond. But from today’s vantage point, it seems that this question will be the key issue and quite probably the last one decided at the end of the legislative process:  Will the legislation provide a real path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or an illusory one, or will there be an opaque solution that in effect punts that decision to a later time? The last-mentioned outcome may be the most likely, because it would allow both sides to claim victory. As anyone knows who has paid even a little attention to Congress lately, punting decisions is one thing it is really good at.

The bipartisan Senate framework appears to erect an extraordinarily high bar at the trailhead of the path to citizenship—presumably because that was the price of keeping the Republican members of the gang on board. The availability of the path is made “contingent upon our success in securing the borders and addressing visa overstays.” No country in the world has “secure borders” in any absolute sense, and visa overstays have always existed. Enforcement can never be perfect; it will always be a matter of degrees and subject to limited resources. Furthermore, achievement of these conditions is beyond the control of the intended beneficiaries of the path to citizenship; unlike the eligibility criteria, the conditions are unrelated to their behavior, and nothing they can do will influence the outcome. Border security is a particularly troubling concept because of the huge gap that exists between our political rhetoric about the border and the reality there. It is hard to see how this debate can even proceed in a rational way, let alone reach a rational conclusion.

The just outcome, and the one that is best for the country, is that the legislation contains no such conditions—the president’s position. We should never deliberately create an underclass of permanent residents that can never aspire to citizenship. Why would we want that? Instead, it appears these conditions stem primarily from political imperatives. The Republican participants in the Gang of Eight fear that they cannot bring their party along without them, given the continuing clout of the party’s anti-immigrant wing, and some fear for their own electoral prospects. Anti-immigrant groups will do their utmost to force the Republican participants in both chamber’s bipartisan “gangs” to commit to ironclad conditions for advancing to citizenship, if there is to be any such option at all. No path to citizenship until we guarantee that no illegal immigrant can ever again enter our country is clearly an impossible standard. The president and the immigrant groups will push in the opposite direction, using the Republican Party’s need to appeal to Hispanics as the lever. Where it will come out is anyone’s guess.

Will an agreement prove possible? Despite all the reasons for skepticism, the driver is that both parties need a solution. International educators have a big stake in this, because embedded in any bill that passes will be important provisions that facilitate access to the United States for international students and scholars. If the package goes down, these provisions go down, and experience does not provide a basis for optimism that they can be separated out and passed on their own. International educators thus have every reason to push hard for just solutions to the big issues involving the path to citizenship. Our values demand that we support a solution that creates an immigration system that works both for aspiring citizens and for those who seek to participate on our campuses as students, scholars, professors, and researchers.