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Path to Citizenship - Cop-Out or a Real Solution?

May 30, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate’s immigration bill is a compromise through and through. As such, we need to look beyond whether or not we like the bill, and instead ask: is it good enough to take, or is it so bad that we should wait and hope that a near-future political situation allows for a better bill? Or put another way, what weighs more heavily: the damage that could be done by not doing anything about the current immigration situation, or the damage that could be done by enacting the current bill? For most people, the scales are set with the guest worker program on one side and the path to citizenship program on the other.

For those on the left, the bill’s guest worker program, which leaves no possibility for guest workers to eventually become U.S. citizens runs, they feel, totally counter to their progressive values. For Conservatives on the right, the path to citizenship program, which offers illegal immigrants an opportunity to become legal citizens, is the main sticking point. They have denounced the path to citizenship program as a rewarding of lawbreakers and argue that it amounts to nothing more than plain and simple amnesty.

Supporters of the path to citizenship program do not accept the charges. Arlen Specter (R, PA), one of a handful of senators who worked behind closed doors to craft the compromise bill, said ,“It is not amnesty. This will restore the rule of law.” President Bush has argued against the amnesty claims as well. “This bill is not an amnesty bill. If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, the bill is an amnesty bill. It’s not an amnesty bill,” Bush said. People on the path to citizenship will have to pay $5,000 in fines, pass a background check, pass an English test, hold a job, and return to their home country before they can re-enter the U.S. legally. The entire process will take 8-13 years to complete.

The bill would immediately grant “Z visas” to illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. consistently from a date before January 1, 2007, allowing them to legally stay in the country. The path to citizenship program would not officially begin until a series of benchmarks have been met. These benchmarks — also referred to as “triggers” — are outlined in Sec. 1 of the bill. They include enhancements to border security, implementation of new anti-fraud measures, making resources available for the detainment of all apprehended border crossers, drastically increasing fines for businesses hiring illegal workers, etc.

Ultimately, current undocumented immigrants, who broke the law by entering (or remaining in) the country illegally, will be subject to less and different punishment than the current law allows. Amnesty may well be the most accurate word for this provision of the bill. However, that does no necessarily make it wrong. Amnesty can serve an important function when the problem at hand has it’s roots in a deeper injustice.

Gregory Rodriguez, writing for the L.A.Times, points out that “Amnesty isn’t a dirty word:”

>It is true that the failure to punish lawbreakers challenges the rule of law and our collective sense of fair play. When we abrogate that rule, we threaten to undermine the social contract. And yet the very idea of pardons and amnesties presupposes that law has its limits and that, on occasion, it is trumped by other values — social cohesion, for one, and a larger view of justice, for another. If the hunger for judgment and punishment is driven — and I believe it is — by a sense of resentment toward lawbreakers, then acts of political forgiveness represent the lifting of that resentment.

Much of the conservative movement to kill this immigration bill comes from a distrust in motives — and not just of politicians, but of immigrants as well. Consider what Rico J. Halo has written for ThatPoliticalBlog:

>I hope that average people are not taken in by the Republicans or Democrats on “comprehensive immigration reform”. It is amnesty and nothing more. Any “triggers”, fines or enforcement provisions will be forgotten the second pen hits paper at the signing. This is nothing less than an invasion of our country by México. They even have a name for it: “reconquista”. I think you can figure out the meaning.

Senator David Vitter (R, LA) proposed an amendment to strike the path to citizenship program from the bill. It was voted on and rejected 66-29 before the Senate left for Memorial Day. Check out the roll call to see where your senator stands on the program. If there is a “Nay” beside their name, they voted to keep the program.

This aspect of the bill raises some really tough questions. Beyond the debate over whether this is or is not amnesty, the question remains, how do current undocumented immigrants deserve to be treated? Is there a larger view of justice to consider here? What are our alternatives for dealing with these people? Can we change this bill in a way that it is acceptable, or do we need to start over? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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