A cynical solution to the immigration impasse

July 10, 2013

A few months back I sat down with an aide to a top House Republican to talk about immigration reform. The sticking point, he said, was going to be the path to citizenship.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Well, the sticking point is getting pretty sticky. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday warning him that Democrats wouldn't support a piecemeal approach that omitted a path to citizenship.

Sen. Chuck Schumer was even blunter. “Without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill," he said.

So that's it, then. Democrats won't accept a bill without a path to citizenship. Republicans likely won't accept a bill with one.

Some Republicans who want a comprehensive immigration bill to pass, however, think there's a way out of this impasse: A path to citizenship that's so difficult and so time-consuming and expensive that they can convince their members very few immigrants will ever actually use it.

The theory here is that a path to citizenship obsesses people in D.C., but doesn't matter that much to actual unauthorized immigrants. They want legal status. They want to be able to live and work and love and worship without fear. But they don't care that much about voting, per se. And they're not likely to jump through too many hoops to get citizenship if they can get and keep legal status without much trouble. A newly-legal immigrant working two low-wage jobs and just trying to get by isn't likely to pull together the money to pay back taxes and get the documents to verify past jobs and the time to learn English and any of two-dozen other things the federal government could require all so they can maybe cast a vote 15 years from now.

The compromise, then, is clear: A path to citizenship that almost no immigrant wants to walk down.

The trick with this plan, say its advocates, is managing the two communication challenges: Persuading Republicans that it's not a real path to citizenship while persuading Democrats it is a real path to citizenship. That may not be possible. Republicans may not be open to that kind of nuance, and even if they are, Democrats may not be willing to vote for an immigration bill that makes citizenship so difficult. After all, both sides can always tell themselves they'll come back and pass something better "later."

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Brad Plumer · July 10, 2013