Undocumented immigrants would have 13-year wait for citizenship under Obama plan

February 19, 2013

A draft of the White House immigration bill was leaked over the weekend, detailing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that would take about 13 years after the passage of the bill to complete, policy experts say.

(Marvin Joseph-Washington Post)
(Marvin Joseph-Washington Post)

The Miami Herald has posted the full text of the draft, which explains how undocumented immigrants would have to go to the "back of the line" to ensure they don't get citizenship before prospective immigrants who went through legal channels. (You also can read the sections detailing employer enforcement and border security.)

The process is broken down into three stages: First, undocumented immigrants must apply for "Lawful Prospective Immigrant Status," which would allow them to work and travel outside the United States with some restrictions, but which would bar them from receiving any government benefits. Prospective immigrants would have to pay back taxes and prove they're pursuing a Education Department-approved course of study to learn English and an "understanding of the history and Government  of the United States," according to the draft. They'd also have to apply to renew their provisional legal status every four years.

Second, those prospective immigrants must either wait eight years from when the comprehensive bill is passed or until the backlog of legal immigrants waiting for visas is cleared before being able to get a green card,"whichever comes earlier," explains Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at NYU School of Law. Once they get a green card — which grants "legal permanent residence" — immigrants typically have to wait at least five more years to become naturalized citizens.

So, in total, qualified undocumented immigrants would likely have to wait at least 13 years  to get full citizenship. Some pro-immigration advocates aren't happy about that wait. "It takes longer than we think is necessary," says Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice. The PICO National Network, a coalition of faith-based community organizers, says the proposal could "delay citizenship another generation" and believes that the wait will be even longer than it looks on paper.

"In practice this could mean people waiting another 15 to 20 years to be fully integrated into society as citizens," Gordon Whitman, PICO's policy director, said in a statement.

But immigration advocates are generally supportive of the overall structure of the process, which in some ways is simpler than the citizenship process proposed in 2007. Six years ago, the comprehensive bill required undocumented immigrants with provisional legal status to "touch back" and receive their visas from their countries of origin, then return to the United States legally. There isn't such a requirement in the White House plan, which also has lower fees and penalties for attaining legal status, explains Tramonte.  "We like the clear, direct path."

Overall, the draft bill's path to legalization is essentially in line with the proposal by the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight, with one big exception. The Senate plan makes legalization contingent on "securing the border" according to benchmarks that have yet to be laid out in detail. President Obama has refused such requirements.

That conflict over border security has been a sore spot for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who blasted the White House draft bill over the weekend as "half baked." But policy experts and advocates believe that Obama and the Senate gang are far closer than the rhetoric suggests. "I don't think fundamentally there is that much difference among these proposals," says Chishti.

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