Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer September 26, 2013

Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he is against creating “a special path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. The path he refers to — which many of his Republican House colleagues also oppose — is the one laid out in the immigration reform bill the Senate passed this summer; it would enable the undocumented, after paying some fines and learning English, to get green cards in 10 years and apply for citizenship three years after that.

But by opposing this special path, House Republicans may create a special category of American: legal but permanently non-citizen. Able to work, required to pay taxes but not able to vote. Subject to taxation without representation. In a word, second-class.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

While House Republicans have been busily working on shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt, they have not neglected their duty to screw up immigration reform. Just how much they’ll mangle it remains unclear. Some oppose any legalization at all. Some support extending citizenship to the Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought here as children — but no one else. Goodlatte says he is open to legalizing additional undocumented immigrants, but it’s not clear that he wants a bill that would enable them to become citizens. (This last option was recently endorsed by Tamar Jacoby, who heads a business group, ImmigrationWorks USA, that wants to take employers off the hook for employing undocumented workers but is apparently indifferent to whether those workers can win any political rights and the bargaining power that goes with it.)

By opposing a “special path,” Goodlatte has set himself against the provision in the Senate bill that would enable the law-abiding undocumented to obtain green cards after a 10-year wait. Instead, he is reportedly working on legislation that would put them in the existing line for green cards, where the wait would be closer to a century. With green cards for low- and semi-skilled workers limited to just a few thousand each year, millions of the undocumented would never obtain the cards or the subsequent opportunity to become citizens.

This non-solution solution might have a certain appeal to Republicans. Legalizing the undocumented would relieve businesses that employ immigrants at low wages regardless of their status. Not granting citizenship to the undocumented would limit the number of Latinos and Asians in the electorate, two groups which increasingly back Democrats at the polls. Could there be a more effective form of voter suppression than citizenship suppression?

But therein lies the Republicans’ dilemma. The political imperative behind embracing some kind of immigration reform is the Republicans’ need to convince Latinos that their party holds them in the same regard as other Americans. Carving out a special sub-citizen category for the disproportionately Latino undocumented doesn’t do that. “What makes them think this solves their problem?” one leading immigrant advocate asked me this week. “It just creates a new problem, since it’s deeply insulting to Latinos.”

Still, the immigrant groups see a way that Goodlatte’s approach might work — if it allows for a major increase in the number of green cards the government issues. Their hope is that the House passes something — a Dream Act, or some bill creating at least in theory a path to citizenship — that would go to conference with the Senate, and that a compromise bill emerges that would create a real path to citizenship. Advocates of immigration reform believe that the Republican leadership may discreetly favor such a course, but they also note that House Republican leaders have shown no discernible ability to actually lead their caucus.

Most GOP House members are safely cocooned in lily-white districts, many of which Republican state legislators carved out for them. Nonetheless, so long as Republicans treat Latinos as second-class Americans — whether prohibited from legal status or merely from citizenship — the GOP’s ability to win elections at the state and federal levels will decline with each passing year. To advocate the creation of a two-tier nation is almost surely to incite the enmity of those relegated to the bottom tier, not to mention their friends and relations and lots of stray egalitarians.

“We don’t cotton to having a permanent second-class group just here to work,” said Tom Snyder, who manages the immigrant reform campaign for the AFL-CIO. “At least since we abolished slavery, it’s not been the American way.”

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