Last updated on: 12/21/2022 | Author:

History of Path to Citizenship Legislation

“Path to citizenship” is a political phrase that usually refers to allowing undocumented immigrants to become American citizens via a special process. This process may include special requirements (such as fees, background checks, or additional waiting times) beyond those already in place for the naturalization of documented immigrants. Citizenship means the immigrants could receive government benefits (such as Social Security), would be eligible to vote, could bring family members into the U.S., and would not be deported for committing a crime.

The term “legalization” refers to a different process from a path to citizenship. Legalization means undocumented immigrants would be allowed to remain in the country legally but would not be allowed to become citizens or receive the same rights granted to US citizens. With legalization, the immigrants would be authorized to work in the U.S., have the ability to legally travel in and out of the country, and would not be subject to deportation for being in the country (though committing certain crimes could lead to deportation). They would not be eligible to vote or to receive government benefits or to bring family members into the country. Read more history…

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for years, paying taxes and contributing positively to the country, and therefore deserve a path to citizenship.

Undocumented immigrants “are our friends, neighbors, relatives, and colleagues — it is in America’s interest to find a reasonable solution for this population. An earned pathway to citizenship, with restitution, allows them to fully assimilate and integrate into the United States without being unfair” to others, argued Laura Collins, Director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. [35]

These undocumented immigrants and their families are already engrained in our country. According to a 2021 George W. Bush Presidential Center white paper, approximately two-thirds of them have been in the US for over a decade. 1.6 million were married to US citizens in 2018 and 675,000 were married to lawful permanent residents. 4.4 million American children citizens and another 100,000 lawful permanent resident or nonimmigrant children had at least one undocumented parent. [35] [36]

95.8% of undocumented immigrants were employed in 2018, contributing a total of $20.1 billion in federal income taxes and $11.8 billion in state and local taxes. In doing so, they created a $100 billion surplus in the Social Security program between 2004 and 2014 and a $35.1 billion surplus in the Medicare Trust Fund between 2000 and 2011. In other words, though they created these surpluses for the country through the automatic payroll taxes they pay they still were denied the benefits that other taxpayers receive. [37]

According to the Center for American Progress, a five-year path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants would offer significant results after five years: 32.4% ($14,000) increase in annual wages for undocumented workers, 1.1% ($700) increase in all other workers’ annual wages, 438,800 new jobs, and a $1.7 trillion increase in the total cumulative GDP (gross domestic product). [38]

As economics professor Giovanni Peri and doctoral student Reem Zaiour of have argued, “Undocumented immigrants have long been essential to the nation’s economic growth and prosperity. As the country battled the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout over the past year, the role of undocumented immigrants… [ensured] the well-being and safety of all Americans… Nearly 3 in 4 undocumented individuals in the workforce—an estimated 5 million—are essential workers. At great risk to themselves and their families, these individuals keep food supply chains running; care for patients in hospitals and support medical systems; maintain the country’s roads and buildings; provide critical care and services for children and the elderly; and educate future generations of Americans. All are critical members of the human infrastructure that powers the nation each day…. [L]egalization and a pathway to citizenship would provide the necessary relief and security for undocumented families and would bring a much-needed boost to the U.S. economy.” [38]

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Pro 2

Many undocumented immigrants arrived as children, had no choice in breaking immigration laws, and know no other country.

As President Barack Obama explained, “These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.” [39]

Called “Dreamers” for the failed DREAM Act legislation, there are between 1,159,000 and 3,600,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States who arrived as minors. 611,470 of those immigrants were registered for DACA as of Dec. 2021. While most Dreamers are from Mexico, they hail from at least 150 countries, including China, Poland, India, and Nigeria. [40] [41] [42]

According to Mar. 2021 estimates, 76% of Dreamers entered the United States in 2011 or earlier and 71% entered the U.S. before they turned 13 years old, with the average Dreamer arriving at age seven. Over 400,000 Dreamers are now a parent to a U.S. citizen child. 50% or more Dreamers are essential workers. [41] [43] [44]

“Over the next 10 years, Dreamers who currently have DACA will contribute an estimated $433.4 billion to the GDP, $60 billion in fiscal impact, and $12.3 billion in taxes to Social Security and Medicare,” estimated Laurence Benenson, Vice President of Policy & Advocacy of the National Immigration Forum. [42]

DACA households paid $6.2 billion in federal and $3.3 billion in state and local taxes annually. They command $25.3 billion in spending power, own 68,000 homes with $760 million in mortgage payments, and pay $2.5 billion in rent yearly. [44]

As education journalist Richard Barth concludes, “Dreamers are showing us every day how committed they are to this country. We need them to help us build a stronger, better future, together. That means creating a path for them to become citizens, as soon as we possibly can.” [45]

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Pro 3

The United States is both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, and its policies should reflect these facts.

“For too many years, the conversation has been predicated on a false dichotomy that says America can either honor its history and traditions as a nation of immigrants or live up to its ideals as a nation of laws by enforcing the current immigration system…. The fundamental problem with this debate is that America is, and has always been, both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws…. Indeed, it is precisely because these two visions of the country are intertwined that America cannot be a nation of laws if those laws are antithetical to its history and ideals as a nation of immigrants,” argues Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress [46]

Jawetz concludes, “because the legal immigration system for many years has provided inadequate opportunities for people looking to come to the United States or remain here, an extralegal system has evolved that consists of both unauthorized migration itself and formal and informal policies to not disrupt a generally mutually beneficial arrangement…. [R]estoring the rule of law requires extending a path to citizenship for the broader undocumented population.” [46]

American immigration law has not been updated to deal with the reality of modern illegal immigration. For example, almost half of the undocumented immigrants in the US did not circumvent the Southern border wall; they overstayed their legal visas. [47]

Kalpana Peddibhotla, immigration lawyer, explains, “They entered with a specific purpose and fell out of status for a variety of reasons, only to realize there is no easy mechanism to correct their status violations…. They stay because they built their lives here, bought homes here, had children here.” [47]

The legal immigration system is far too restrictive, preventing those who want to immigrate legally from doing so because they’d have to “wait in line” for decades, immigrants without higher education are limited despite those immigrants fueling the US economy, and immigrants need an American sponsor to even apply, among a litany of other defects in the laws. [48]

Current immigration laws are broken and do not reflect American values as a nation of immigrants. The laws have encouraged the arrival or overstay of undocumented immigrants without offering a path to reconcile their status with the law. [48]

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Con 1

Undocumented immigrants have broken the law that legal immigrants have followed and should not be rewarded for their crimes with the benefits of citizenship. Such actions incentivize lawbreaking.

If immigrants can skip the citizenship (or legalization) line by crossing the border without permission or over-staying legal entry, why would they bother with the appropriately lengthy legal process? Amnesty effectively incentivizes immigrants to break the law with a large reward. [49] [50] [51]

Calling amnesty “the worst approach to illegal immigration,” Matt O’Brien, Director of Research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says “amnesty for illegal aliens is a slippery slope. As any parent, school teacher or police officer knows, rewarding bad behavior only encourages more bad behavior. And much of our current immigration situation is directly attributable to the series of amnesties that began with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Rather than pushing the reset button, and allowing the United States to regain control of its borders, IRCA sent a clear message to would-be illegal aliens: ‘If you violate our immigration laws long enough, you will be rewarded for your troubles and granted legal status.’” [49]

Not only does a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants reward the immigrants who broke the law by entering the country illegally, but any amnesty rewards the coyotes and traffickers who extort people in return for smuggling them into the United States. Coyotes sell the idea of “permiso” (that the US grants citizenship to people within the country) to desperate, ill-informed Mexicans, as well as Central and South Americans, enticing them to spend outrageous sums and undertake an arduous and potentially fatal journey to be smuggled over the US border.” [50] [51] [52]

Amnesty also emboldens sex and labor traffickers, among other criminals, bringing more crime, drugs, and entrapped people into the United States. “The failed policies of this [Biden] administration encourage and facilitate Mexican drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations and other malevolent actors to engage in human trafficking and smuggling across our southwestern border,” argues Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ). [53]

Adds David Inserra, a policy analyst for Homeland Security and Cyber Security at the Heritage Foundation, “Beyond incentivizing additional illegal immigration, amnesty is unfair to all law-abiding Americans, legal immigrants, and those waiting to come legally to the U.S. Instead of jettisoning the rule of law with amnesty, Congress should ensure that immigration best serves the U.S.’s interests and that the immigration system is easier to use and navigate by those seeking legal entry. Ultimately, amnesty unfairly favors those who have broken U.S. laws at the expense of those who obey them.” [54]

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Con 2

The United States needs to enforce immigration laws already in place.

The United States already has a path to citizenship. The country has laws that clearly state who may enter the country for what reasons and under what circumstances, and by what process they may become US citizens. [55]

The United States also already has a penalty for people who break those laws. The penalty for “unlawful presence” is deportation and a three- or ten-year time bar for legal reentry. For repeat violations, immigrants may be permanently barred from the United States. [56] [57]

Though difficult to accurately count, the Department of Homeland Security estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the US in 2018. According to Migration Policy Institute estimates, there were about 11 million in 2019. The Center for Immigration Studies estimated 11.35 million in 2022. [58] [59] [60]

Of those undocumented immigrants, only 320,000 migrants have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) (with the potential for 588,335 others to gain that status depending upon Biden Administration classifications for their home countries). TPS is “a temporary immigration status provided to nationals of certain countries experiencing problems that make it difficult or unsafe for their nationals to be deported to those countries.” [61] [62]

Those numbers do not include the 29,916 refugees or 46,508 people granted asylum either via pre-arrival application or asking for asylum at the border upon undocumented arrival in 2019. [63]

Even with rough estimates, that leaves over 10 million undocumented immigrants without legal permission to be in the country. In what other situation does the United States look the other way about 10 million instances of broken laws? [55]

As indicated by the 1986 IRCA, any kind of amnesty only deals with the immediate issue–the undocumented immigrants in the country at that time–and does nothing to resolve the ongoing illegal immigration problem. [64]

The United States needs to enforce the laws on the books, send a clear no-entry message to other immigrants who may try to enter the country illegally in the future, and restore the country’s image as one of laws. [64]

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Con 3

A path that stops short of citizenship would be a more appropriate and humane approach to undocumented immigrants.

Offering a legal status without the possibility of citizenship would address the reality of the American illegal immigration problem with a workable solution. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States without TPS [Temporary Protected Status], a number that is impossible to locate and process for either deportation or other legal action. [61] [65]

As Dr. Ashley Nunes, a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, argues, “A more pragmatic solution would be to offer a path to legalization that stops short of citizenship. That would meet the humanitarian imperative to keep families together. But it would also hold those who have violated immigration laws accountable for their actions…. Except for those who were born on American soil, citizenship is not a right. It’s a privilege. A path short of citizenship sends a powerful message to America’s legal-immigrant community, whose members have worked tirelessly to follow existing immigration guidelines. There is a rule of law, and citizenship is granted to those who follow it.” [66]

One option, suggested by the libertarian Cato Institute, is a tiered legalization process. Undocumented immigrants would have the ability to pay a fee to obtain a work permit that requires a fee-based renewal, allowing them to work and live in the US legally, travel abroad and return to the US, and otherwise legally participate in American society. They would not be able to vote, access welfare or other entitlements, or apply for citizenship. Most undocumented immigrants would choose this path instead of a more expensive path to citizenship based on data from the IRCA. [65]

Another option is rolling legalization. Undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for more than 10 years could apply for legalization without a path to citizenship, and immigration enforcement would only deport more recently arrived immigrants. Law enforcement could then more efficiently target a smaller population while sending a message to potential immigrants that American laws will be enforced. [65]

Immigration policies like these would promote legal immigration and confront the reality of a large undocumented population, while not rewarding illegal activity that could promote still more illegal crossings or overstays. [65]

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