“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.
Alternatives to citizenship and legalization include the deportation of and civil proceedings against individual or groups of undocumented immigrants. Because being in the US without legal documentation is a civil rather than a criminal offense, criminal proceedings are not an option.
A path to citizenship and legalization are sometimes called “amnesty.” Legally, amnesty is “grant[ing] a pardon to those who have committed an offense.” In immigration law, that means “the government forgiving individuals for using forged/false documentation to gain employment in the U.S. and to remain in the country, and would allow illegal immigrants or undocumented immigrant aliens to gain permanent residency in the United States.” Permanent residency could lead to citizenship or another legal status, depending on the immigration action taken by the US federal government.
While a path to citizenship policy is often considered a Democratic Party policy, both Democratic and Republican presidents have promoted, considered, or enacted such policies. Democratic President Jimmy Carter proposed legalization for undocumented immigrants in Aug. 1977, arguably setting the stage for the current debate. The legislation was not picked up by Congress, but the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy was established “to study and evaluate the existing laws, policies and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees.” The committee submitted the final report to Republican President Ronald Reagan in Mar. 1981.
A direct result of the commission’s report was the path-to-citizenship legislation introduced by Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) and Representative Romano L. Mazzoli (D-KY) in 1982. After several revisions of the bill, Reagan signed it into law in Nov. 1986. Called the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA, also called the Simpson-Mazzoli Act or the Reagan Amnesty), it is widely considered the biggest amnesty in modern American history. The act allowed some undocumented immigrants to apply first for temporary legal status. Once legal status was granted, those immigrants could then apply for lawful permanent residency (a “green card”) and later for citizenship. The law required that the undocumented immigrants had entered the United States prior to Jan. 1, 1982, or be a farm worker with at least 90 days of validated employment in order to embark on the path to citizenship.
While an Oct. 31, 1986, government memo estimated 2,663,000 undocumented immigrants would be eligible for amnesty under the IRCA, 3,040,475 undocumented immigrants actually applied for temporary legal status via the new law, according to a 2002 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) study. Of those, 2,688,730 (88%) received permanent residency, and 889,033 of them (33%) had received citizenship by 2001.
Undocumented immigrants from Mexico formed the most likely group to apply for amnesty via the IRCA (2,271,187 people), followed by El Salvador (168,283), Guatemala (71,048), Haiti (60,048), Columbia (34,884), Philippines (29,443), Dominican Republic (28,253), Pakistan (22,534), India (22,085), Peru (19,810), Jamaica (19,260), Honduras (18,169), Poland (17,673), Nicaragua (16,775), Ecuador (16,375), Nigeria (16,266), Iran (15,306), Canada (11,724), Korea (11,512), and China (11,3380).
In 1987, following a failed amendment to the IRCA, Reagan’s Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner, Alan C. Nelson, announced the “Family Fairness” policy that protected from deportation the minor children of undocumented parents covered by the IRCA amnesty, as well as some spouses who met “compelling or humanitarian factors.” Republican President George H.W. Bush expanded upon this new policy, protecting from deportation undocumented family members pursuing the legalization process and allowing them to work if they were in the US before the 1986 passage of the IRCA. These provisions were part of the Immigration Act of 1990.
With these additional paths to legal citizenship now in place for immigrants, the federal government turned to the continuing problem of border enforcement and illegal immigration. In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made the deportation of undocumented immigrants easier, made more undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation, and made becoming a legal resident or citizen more difficult. As a result of this new law, deportations increased to levels not seen since the Great Depression. However, the undocumented immigrant population also surged, which some experts attribute to increased border security that hindered travel in and out of the country, forcing immigrants in the country to stay.
The population increase presented an issue for Republican President George W. Bush, whose 2007 plan for immigration reform was adamantly opposed to an “automatic path to citizenship or any other form of amnesty.” Bush’s plan leaned heavily on assimilating immigrants and called for undocumented immigrants to be “brought out of the shadows” so they could pay “a substantial penalty.” They would also be required to “learn English, pay their taxes, pass a background check, and hold a job for a number of years” before being eligible for legalization, at which point they would go to the “back of the line” for citizenship consideration behind everyone who has legally applied for citizenship, including refugees. But too few Senate Republicans supported the reform, and the initiative died.
Though often considered an Obama administration policy (President Barack Obama served from 2009-17), the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was actually introduced in the Senate on Aug. 1, 2001, by Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Several versions of the bill have been introduced in Congress at least 11 times since 2001 with bipartisan support, but none have passed both houses. The most recent Senate versions (S.264 -– Dream Act of 2021) and House (H.R.6 -– American Dream and Promise Act of 2021) would allow undocumented immigrants who (1) were brought to the US as children and have lived in the US for four years continuously; (2) are high school graduates or GED recipients, or are enrolled in high school or a GED program; and (3) have no criminal convictions to obtain conditional permanent resident (CPR) status, which includes a work permit. The immigrants would then be able to apply for lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) on a conditional basis after 8 years (in the Senate bill) or 10 years (House bill) and after completing two years of college in good standing or graduating with a college degree, completing two years of military service, or three years of work (working at least 75% of the time).
The amnesty debate resurfaced in 2012 with the enactment of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a selective enforcement of immigration laws that some compare to Reagan and Bush’s “Family Fairness” policies. An executive order signed by Democratic President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012, DACA prevented the deportation of some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and allowed them to get work permits. The order did not offer legalization or a path to citizenship, whereas the DREAM Act would have.
In 2017, Republican President Donald Trump announced that his administration would end the DACA program in fulfillment of a campaign promise. But his attempt to kill the law was blocked by the US Supreme Court, which stated that the administration did not offer “a reasoned explanation for its action.” A second attempt to kill DACA died in 2020 when Democrat Joe Biden won the presidency and asked the Department of Homeland Security to “preserve and fortify DACA.” The Biden administration then attempted to expand on DACA, presenting Dreamers (as beneficiaries of DACA are called) with additional rights, in the Build Back Better Act, which passed the House in 2021 but died in the Senate.
Regardless of who is in the White House, the number of illegal crossings into the U.S. have continued to rise. In fiscal year 2022 (Oct. 1, 2021 – Sep. 30, 2022) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recorded some 2.8 million total border enforcement actions, up significantly from 526,901 in fiscal year 2017. The influx of immigrants and the political climate around the issue of immigration spurred the governors of some U.S. states receiving the lion’s share of these immigrants (such as Arizona, Texas, and Florida) to fly and bus migrants who entered the U.S. illegally to northern states with more lenient laws regarding undocumented immigrants (including New York and Massachusetts). These acts sparked great controversy, intensifying the national debate over immigration.
A Feb. 16, 2022, NewsNation poll found 70% of Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and 30% oppose the policy. However, Americans also support stronger border control, with 73% favoring increased security, suggesting a desire to stem illegal immigration rather than open-ended support of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  
For more on the history of immigration, see ProCon’s Historical Timeline: History of Legal and Illegal Immigration to the United States.