Department of Unhelpful Immigration Metaphors (4): 'Pathway to Citizenship'

Among the hardiest of metaphorical clichés in immigration debates is the need to create a "pathway to citizenship." This concept is almost exclusively used in connection with efforts to legalize the status of some 11-12 million documented immigrants.

Along with being among the hardiest, it is also the most anemic and least evocative of unhelpful immigration metaphors. That is one reason why it is almost always found in the company of qualifying adjectives.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, for example, is for "a pathway to citizenship," but only if it is, "a thoughtful, reasonable pathway to citizenship." So too, President Obama is for a "pathway to citizenship," but only if it is "fair, reflective of our values, and works."

The need for qualifying adjectives suggests a policy that is hard to defend on its merits when stripped of its rhetorical enhancers.

The phrase "pathway to citizenship" itself links two terms in the service of illegal-immigrant legalization that are hardly ever analyzed in the context of legalization, but deserve to be. Building a pathway to citizenship begins with erroneous assumption; that there isn't one already available in the United States. Of course, this is not true.

The United States already has a very open, very accommodating "pathway to citizenship." It begins with applying for permission to immigrate to the United States and receiving it. Then spending five years in the country without breaking the law and then taking a very basic test of rudimentary English facility, knowledge of American creed and government, and being of sound character which mostly demonstrated by simply keeping out of felonious trouble.

Unlike many other countries, the United States requires no particular level of education, English proficiency, or work skill level to gain entry. Moreover, the United States has taken in over a million new legal immigrants each year over the past several years, a number much larger than other western democracies like the UK (427,000 in 2008), Australia (285,347 in 2008-09), and Canada (252,179 in 2009), all of which have much more stringent entry requirements.

One these grounds legalization's "pathway to citizenship" might be better termed "shortcut to citizenship" since it simply discards the process of applying for and waiting your turn in the immigration line to begin to receive the immediate benefits that living and working in the United States confer.

And what of the citizenship part of that pathway? Why is that immigrants who have begun their life in the United States by breaking American immigration laws must be offered citizenship with all the political economic and other benefits that status confers? Why not a path to some other legalized status, instead of citizenship? Not every immigrant in the country legally is given Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status. Why should undocumented immigrants who are here because they broke immigration laws be offered the status of citizen that is the crown jewel of the American political community?

There is another, deeper issue here, one that rarely if ever gets engaged. Just why is it necessary at all to develop an alternative "pathway to citizenship" for the great many people who have taken advantage of a weak enforcement system and ignored American immigration law?

I ask this question seriously. I understand the politics of the debate. Democrats want to be seen as champions of the have-nots against the haves, except in this case what the haves have is American citizenship that is that result of a legally mandated process that both political parties help to build and legitimize. I understand that some Republicans, and Democrats, would like more workers for their restaurants, landscape, hospitality, construction and other businesses. By why does this have to entail the legalization of 11-12 million persons?

Is it because there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants here already and their sheer numbers compel us to legalize them? The typical answer to this question is that the country would not be able to countenance or tolerate mass deportations. And that is doubtlessly correct. But mass deportation is not the only alternative to legalization. The much more passive and politically palatable policy of slowly diminishing undocumented immigration through enforcement and the self-emigration of immigrants unable to illegally gain employment is also available as a serious option.

Is a "pathway to citizenship" a necessity because our enforcement efforts have been episodic and ineffective and we have incurred a moral debt that can only be redeemed by a legalization program? Some apparently think so. Cynthia Tucker, a pundit for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a reliable guide to progressive views, writes that "the United States practically invited undocumented laborers into the country during the go-go '90s, when houses needed to be built, hotel rooms needed to be cleaned and babies with working moms needed to be tended"

The implication here is that we incurred a moral indebtedness. Did we? Were undocumented workers who came here indirectly promised legality by the failure of our verification procedures to do their job? In "accepting" the presence of so many illegal immigrants and pressing, as some in both parties have, for legalization has the message been sent that forgiveness for this transgression has already been made and we merely await the legal ratification of our redemption and their change in status?

Those advocating legalization have a responsibility to make their claims and their reasoning clear and not resort to bolstering adjectives to make their case.

If they don't or won't, they should be pushed hard and publically to do so.