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A New Starting Point for Immigration Reform

Placards and campaign stickers sit on a table at the Latino regional headquarters for the Obama campaign during election day of the U.S. presidential election in Milwaukee (REUTERS/Sara Stathas).

The surprising strength of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election has created an incentive for the Republican Party, poor performers with Latinos, to rethink their strategy for 2016. It’s also driving calls for change to the nation’s immigration laws. In the past week, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have spoken publicly about the need for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. 

The focus remains on Latinos because they are expected to grow their number of voters by 40 percent, and the Pew Hispanic Center projects the Latino electorate will double in size by 2030.

President Obama plans to get to work on the issue after his inauguration in January. Senators Schumer and Graham are reinvigorating their vision of comprehensive reform, last seen in 2010, by starting up discussions with their congressional colleagues.

The post-election moment for immigration reform also includes Republican leaders such as John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Marco Rubio and conservative voices, such as Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer, who have stated clearly that comprehensive immigration reform is the only way to go.

But what does “comprehensive” reform look like?  It depends on who you ask. A comprehensive approach typically includes border security, worksite enforcement, including a reliable verification system with a tamper-resistant ID card, and changes to the admissions system to admit more immigrants that are economically suited to the US market. But “comprehensive reform” most importantly means that there will be a policy that deals with the estimated 11 million people living in the United States without legal status.

This is a new starting point in the debate over reforming immigration policy. 

What’s at stake is whether reform will include a pathway to legal status that includes citizenship or not. The “pathway to citizenship” ideal held by advocates, the public, and some partisan leaders, is a phased, earned process that ultimately ends in citizenship if the immigrant chooses to naturalize. The process takes years after immigrants undergo background checks, English language classes, demonstrate they have paid taxes, and pay a fine, among other measures.  They must go to the “the back of the line” in fairness to others who have been waiting for green cards. Then they must meet the residency requirements to apply for naturalization. Under various legalization scenarios that have been proposed in the past, obtaining citizenship could take 10 years or more.

The benefits of legalization include boosting the GDP through more on-the-books labor, increased tax revenues, and making sure employers are following hiring and employment laws. Legalization also strengthens communities across the country. When immigrants have the right to live and work in the United States they are less fearful of being deported and are more active in civic life. U.S. citizenship enhances these benefits and provides an additional and meaningful bonus: As full members of the United States, naturalized immigrants have the right to vote.

A pathway to legal status that stops short of the final stage of access to naturalization would be misguided. It also is unnecessary under a comprehensive approach that would provide an integrated system of enforcement and access, reducing the number of unauthorized workers while reducing the number that are able to come surreptitiously.

Thus, while bipartisan agreement may be emerging, what comprehensive reform looks like to each party will no doubt require compromise. Let’s hope the forthcoming debates are open and constructive and that they move immigration policy reform in sensible, pragmatic, and beneficial ways to open up legal status and ultimately citizenship to immigrants.

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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