HOUSE REPUBLICANS came eyeball to eyeball with sweeping immigration reform Tuesday, and they blinked. No matter that a bipartisan group of senators including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a favorite of the Republican right, has endorsed a pathway to earned citizenship. In a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, GOP members still could not reconcile themselves to the prospect that undocumented immigrants might one day become full-fledged Americans.
Instead, they groped for some probationary status — a legal limbo — into which 11 million people, many of whom have already lived in the United States for a decade or more, might be indefinitely slotted. Anything to avoid charting a course for what many Republicans regard as the dreaded amnesty.
It’s their own business if Republicans want to continue alienating the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority. But politics aside, there are powerful economic, moral and practical reasons to embrace an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that includes eventual citizenship.
Millions of undocumented immigrants have remained in this country during and since the Great Recession, precisely because the labor market continues to demand their services. A growing body of evidence shows that immigrants are an ongoing economic stimulus — not just high-skilled immigrants but also relatively low-skilled ones who spend their wages on goods and services.
It is now universally understood these people will not disappear, nor self-deport, nor be driven back across the border into Mexico. That leaves the question of modifying their status so that they may emerge from the shadows and live fully productive lives.
It may be the case that many illegal immigrants would welcome some form of probation, even a lengthy one, which would certainly be an improvement on the status quo. But it makes no sense, nor is it morally right, for the United States to create a permanent underclass of workers, numbering in the millions, who have no prospect of citizenship even as we expect them to continue mowing our lawns, caring for our children, painting our houses and manning our processing plants — as many have done for a decade or more already. Yet that is essentially the “compromise” some House Republicans are now floating.
There is space for genuine compromise on the length of the road to citizenship and the requirements to navigate it. It’s sensible to expect that undocumented immigrants who want U.S. citizenship will learn English and civics, commit no crimes and pay taxes. It’s also fair to demand that they wait their turn behind others who have already applied for legal permanent residency — as long as the waiting time is reasonable. That means taking steps to accelerate the wait for existing applicants, which in some cases lasts for more than 20 years.
But a plan that includes no prospect of citizenship, or a prospect so faint that it may be decades in the future, is no plan at all. Having given up the fantasy of mass deportation, House Republicans must take the next logical step by embracing a deal that’s both workable and just.