by Andres Oppenheimer

House Republicans don't seem to get it. After getting pummeled by Hispanic voters in the 2012 election, they now want to create an underclass of 11 million people - mostly Latinos - by denying undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration, committee chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., suggested that President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers' proposals to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship would be an "extreme" idea.

Goodlatte and other House Republicans suggested instead that undocumented people be given a legal status without a pathway to citizenship, something they presented as a midway solution to the U.S. immigration crisis.

While details of the various immigration bills being drafted in Congress are still sketchy, there seems to be three main positions about what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants:

1. House Republicans, such as Goodlatte, are proposing to give undocumented people a temporary legal status that presumably could be renewed indefinitely, but that would not include a path to permanent residency, or citizenship.

2. Senate Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., support giving undocumented immigrants an "eventual" path to permanent residency and citizenship, but only after border security is enhanced and immigrants meet a series of conditions. Among other things, undocumented immigrants will have to wait in line behind green-card seekers who are already petitioning legal residency from abroad.

3. Obama and most House and Senate Democrats would give undocumented immigrants a direct path to permanent residency and citizenship if they pass background checks, pay a penalty, pay taxes, learn English and wait in line behind those who are trying to immigrate legally.

Pro-immigration advocates say that under Obama's plan, most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants could achieve citizenship in about 12 years, while under the Rubio plan it would take them up to 25 years.

Frank Sharry, director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, says the House Republicans' proposal to create an underclass of non-citizens would be a "terrible" idea.

"We have an example in American history in which we denied people citizenship, called slavery," Sharry told me. "It's bad for America, for our social cohesion, for our belief in equality and for the functioning of democracy."

Critics of the House Republican no-citizenship plan say that, far from being a midway solution, creating an underclass of temporary residents without a path to citizenship would institutionalize rampant labor abuses.

Since temporary residents would have to renew their status periodically, they would be subject to exploitation by unscrupulous bosses, critics say. In addition, an underclass of immigrants without a path to citizenship would alienate millions of people, and increase social tensions.

France, which has millions of Muslim immigrants who are not eligible for citizenship, has suffered violent riots by alienated youths in recent years, critics say.

"When you don't allow people to blend into society, like in France, you take the country down the path of a bifurcated society," says Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group. "That weakens the country in the long run."

Opponents of a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, in turn, argue that their proposal for a temporary and renewable legal status is far better than the current situation, in which we have millions living in the shadows, under constant threat to be deported.

My opinion: Granted, the House Republicans' new immigration stand is a clear improvement from the anti-immigration, anti-Hispanic, bigoted positions that many of them passionately defended during the 2012 campaign.

But creating an underclass of noncitizens is not the solution to the U.S. immigration mess.

House Republicans' real motive for denying a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants, most of them Latinos, is that following the November election - in which 73 percent of Hispanics voted for the Democrats - most of the future citizens would vote Democratic.

But, beyond politics, denying millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship is a bad idea because it would only help kick the problem forward: 10 or 15 years from now, we would have 11 million people and their relatives demanding their right to vote, and to have full rights.

That would be of little help for Republicans to mend fences with Hispanics, would be morally questionable, and would be a recipe for increasing social tensions in the country.

 

 

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