GOP's devious immigration trick: Why Democrats have a looming dilemma

What would Democrats do if Republicans said yes to permanent legal status -- but no citizenship -- for immigrants?

Published January 30, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

John Boehner, Paul Ryan                                       (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Paul Ryan (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

After talking it over with John Boehner last night, Joe Biden says he's pretty confident that House Republicans will be able to pass a consensus immigration reform bill.

According to Nancy Pelosi, she believes Republicans will adopt a reasonable position on immigration reform that most if not all Democrats will ultimately support.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama was much less critical of House Republicans for stalling immigration reform -- "Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same" -- than for allowing emergency unemployment benefits to lapse -- "this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people" -- or for attacking healthcare reform -- "let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty."

Suddenly immigration reform doesn't look nearly as comatose as many observers, including myself, believed it was just a few weeks ago. So the question of the hour is, What will the price of resuscitating it be? And I'm not sure Democrats have thought through whether they're ready to accept the price Republicans might settle on.

At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent has been unspooling the verbal contortions pro-reform Republicans must resort to when they discuss their reform principles and particularly the issue of 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It all turns on the term conservatives hate: “special pathway to citizenship.”

There is a way Republicans could embrace legalization that Dems could ultimately accept. Dems could insist that if Republicans don’t want a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million, then the normal channels to citizenship for everyone must be unclogged. That means removing various currently existing barriers to green cards (which start the path to citizenship) for those who would be sponsored by employers or family members. Reformers believe you can get to citizenship for many of the 11 million this way.

More here.

Presumably Democrats would never agree to an immigration reform bill that immigrants themselves believe would make their lives more difficult -- so the worst possible outcome here is probably that nothing happens at all. No bill.

But right now, the best possible outcome hinges on this bizarre metaphysics of guaranteed citizenship.

Nebulous wording and wiggle room is where a lot of politics happen, and its totally possible that this all comes down to framing a picayune technical dispute over how and when the 11 million end up becoming citizens as the difference between amnesty and not amnesty.

But it's also possible that Republicans will make legalization precluding citizenship, or making citizenship effectively unattainable, their final offer. And I'm not sure Democrats and advocates have adequately grappled with the bind that would place them in. Obviously it would be a major negotiating failure for reformers to entertain an idea like this publicly. And it would be a genuinely unjust outcome in the sense that the 11 million would be treated secondarily to the rest of their fellow taxpayers under the law. And it would be a sub-optimal political outcome for the Democrats' demographic politics.

For all these reasons, reformers have typically refused to go there.

Until very recently. When CBS News asked Biden about this issue on Wednesday morning, he cracked open the door. "We still think by far and away the preferable route to go is citizenship," he said. "We don’t want two-tier people in America, those who are legal but not citizens and citizens."

Which perhaps explains why AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka slammed it shut Wednesday afternoon, warning that unions would walk away if party leaders sanctioned a deal along those lines.

“Without citizenship, it’s a nonstarter because you can’t fix a broken immigration system and create a vast class of millions of people living in the community and working in our workplaces without citizenship. You can’t do that. They have no rights,” Trumka said.

That is the principled concern here. But in human terms, would actual immigrants (and their citizen children) prefer no bill at all to a bill that at least lets them work and live freely in the U.S. in perpetuity? Particularly if they could turn right around and begin organizing for a fight over the singular issue of guaranteed citizenship in 2016 and beyond?

I don't think you can poll questions like that accurately. If you can, I haven't seen it. But I have seen and known plenty of people living in fear of deportation, and many of them would welcome relief from that fear. Which means the question for Democrats would be whether the principle of equal treatment, and the cynical fruits of guaranteed citizenship, trump the actual wishes of the people they're tying to help.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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