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Second class citizenship: Not the answer to the GOP’s problems

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GOP Rep. Raul Labrador is being closely watched for clues to the House GOP’s leanings in the immigration debate, and today he came out against a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country — and voiced support for second class status instead.

“The people that came here illegally knowingly — I don’t think they should have a path to citizenship,” Labrador said, according to TPM. “If you knowingly violated our law, you violated our sovereignty. I think we should normalize your status but we should not give you a pathway to citizenship.” Labrador added that House Republicans are “not going to be able to vote for” citizenship. This echoes other House Republicans who have derided the pro-citizenship position as “extreme.” John Boehner and Eric Cantor have both declined to endorse it, too.

Obviously it’s hard for House Republicans to embrace citizenship, given the right’s passions about the issue, and hopefully GOP leaders are engaged in an elaborate dance to move Republicans to the point where they can ultimately embrace it. But here’s the question: Isn’t embracing second class legal status the worst possible option? Today’s Quinnipiac poll is the first I’ve seen that polls the range of immigration policy options with the right degree of nuance:

Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States? A) They should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for US citizenship. B) They should be allowed to remain in the United States, but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. C) They should be required to leave the U.S.
Stay/citizenship: 56
Stay/not citizen: 10
Not stay: 30

The House GOP position, which Republicans like to portray as the middle ground position, is supported by 10 percent of Americans. It’s supported by only 13 percent of Latinos (because an overwhelming 70 percent of them support citizenship). And it’s supported by only 11 percent of Republicans — indeed, far more Republicans, 40 percent, back citizenship. On the other side, a whopping 46 percent of Republicans support deportation. The second class status position is a tiny island. It pleases nobody. It’s at odds with the big chunk of the GOP base that Republicans are wary of alienating in the first place by embracing any kind of legal status at all, and it doesn’t win over many Latinos or independents (only 11 percent of whom support it) or Americans in general.

The simple fact is that when you offer Americans a full range of policy options that includes second class status, a comfortable majority — including a majority of independents — supports the path to citizenship. It’s the mainstream position. It’s understandable that Republicans need to move slowly and cautiously on immigration, but it’s hard to see how they will succeed in meaningfully moderating the party’s image on the issue — or begin to repair relations with Latinos — if they can’t find a way to embrace genuine reform. Almost nobody wants this problem resolved with the creation of a massive and permanent sub-citizenship class of Americans.