The current debate on comprehensive immigration reform is centered on the idea of a path to citizenship for the over eleven million undocumented in the United States. Beneath struggle over what this path will look like is the very ideal of “American-ness” and the value added that new immigrant citizens will bring. Legalizing “Americans in waiting” or “aspiring Americans” is less about the human rights or civil rights of the undocumented but rather about the economic and political potential of a hugely diverse group of people.
It’s not the “i” word, “illegal” that politicos and so-called advocates are worried about. It’s the “A” word, amnesty. As if offering a simple way to legalize immigration status is the worst thing to offer for families who have been here for years if not decades. Democrats and President Obama have not shown the political courage to challenge both Republicans and the more conservative members of their own party. Instead of acknowledging the already existing benefit the undocumented provide in the United States, the focus is on potential gain and proving how little immigrants take. It’s as if the baseline is accepting that immigrants shouldn’t take anything from the United States. Just give, give, and give. Just last week, The Center for American Progress released a report, Immigrants Are Makers, Not Takers, highlighting how immigrants pay more into the system than they take out and can be credited with keeping key federal benefits like social security afloat. But more than anything the report looks at immigrant potential citizens as commodities using various studies to back the idea that citizenship is sound economic policy, adding “between $21 billion and $45 billion to the U.S. economy over five years.”
What organizations, advocates, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are not saying is how a pathway to citizenship means a pathway to the polls. Politicians want to be able to tap into immigrant votes especially Latino immigrant votes and say remember when I got you comprehensive immigration reform? Naturalized citizens comprise more than 8 percent of eligible voters, two-thirds of whom are not Latino. They are Asian and non-Latino whites and blacks. But in a country that struggles to look at race beyond black and white, and increasingly “brown”, this nuance is lost especially in the continued post-presidential election Latino vote hype. While naturalized voters make up a relatively small percentage of the overall electorate, with many elections being decided by a small margin of votes, these votes still have a huge potential. A recent report from the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California found that newly naturalized immigrants are registering to vote at higher rates than in the past in no small part due to anti-immigrant rhetoric. This could be one of the real reasons so many Republicans are hesitant to included a pathway to citizenship, fearing payback over anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation from new voters. It could also be why more and more of them are publically more open to the idea of immigration reform.
There is more than just economic and political motivations behind pushing citizenship as the ultimate finishing line for comprehensive immigration reform. At it’s core is the cultural myth of “American-ness” tied to race and language and culture. From pushing civics exams to learning English to Obama’s Las Vegas speech saying that “we”, presumably U.S. citizens, were once “them”, immigrants. This us vs them language reveals assimilation into the proverbial “melting pot” as one of the ultimate goals. Erasing difference makes immigrants more palatable, more easy to embrace. There is a myth that citizenship will erase racial or ethnic discrimination.
While there is no doubt that the immigration system is broken, caution is needed as details of reform are hammered out. The needs of immigrant communities should be the center of discussion not the needs of an equally broken economic and political system.