The Path to Citizenship – Making Americans in Waiting Voters in Waiting

The Path to Citizenship – Making Americans in Waiting Voters in Waiting


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.


  1. As a Afrikan Cuban I will never support a return to anywhere for anyone..This must be clear to all who read it..There are no UNDOCUMENTED or ILLEGAL humans living anywhere on this earth.

    However, there are those who wish to control whomever they please as well their movements.this is unacceptable. Humans are free, and to this end I will always refuse to bend

    Undocumented. Out of status. Illegal. Call it what you will, in America it means one thing: you have no papers, no green card, and often no hope of obtaining one. For the millions who cross the border unlawfully each year, it is a choice made with the understanding of its risks and rewards.

    However, this statement in itself is wrong As a live birth we are all documented and legal and there are no papers needed

    Yet thousands of New York City schoolchildren will earn this label not by choice but by fate, by the actions of parents who brought them across the border as infants or toddlers in the hope of a better life, often with little understanding of the consequences.

    So is the writer saying that parents did not have live births?

    These children are a second generation of illegals, raised American, fluent in English, in limbo between a home country they barely know, and an America that does not recognize their right to be here.

    Amerikkka, refuses to see anyone who is not a European unless they are a maid, child care tender, or cook The children are more than second generation humans

    “Most of my friends don’t know, so it’s not an issue with them,” says Catherine Ochoa, in Brooklyn-accented English. “But when I go to the doctor or dentist, it’s weird, because I don’t have a social security number.
    And the dentist does not care about anything but $$$$ There are no illegal undocumented dollars

    A pretty girl of fourteen, dressed head to toe in denim and wearing a bright purple sash as a belt, she stands with her mother and two siblings in the hallway of a Brooklyn community college, outside of a forum on education rights.
    “I’m here to learn the rights we have, even if we’re illegal,” her mother, Lillia Ochoa, says in Spanish. “I would like her to go to college.”

    Lillia, a quiet woman in her thirties, left Cuenca, Ecuador twelve years ago to meet her husband in the United States, where he had joined his cousins to work. The trip took a month and five days, and she crossed the frontier carrying Catherine, who was then two, in her arms.

    “That was the hardest part, I was very worried for her,” she says.

    “People in Ecuador told me stories about the dangers of robbery and rape. They said that if you and the girl fall behind you can get killed.

    “We walked all night. Going across the border, I saw someone dead on the road.”

    Coming to America in search of opportunity, she found a harsh reality instead. Her husband, also illegal, left her five years later, after she had given birth to two more children, a boy and a girl. To get by, she worked in a sweatshop and babysitting. “At the time I worked 17 to 18 hours a day,” she says.

    Now while her youngest children are American citizens, her eldest daughter must struggle with her identity, because while she may feel American, she lacks the papers to prove it.

    “There are so many things you can’t do if you’re illegal,” Catherine says, a note of frustration in her voice. “You can’t get a job, you can’t get into college. People don’t care. They make fun of us just because we’re from another country.”

    For her, the worst part is the uncertainty.

    “If they found out, my mom and I would have to leave and my brother and sister would stay.”

    For Dr. Marcelo Suarez-Orazco, Catherine’s dilemma is more common than most Americans realize. As co-founder of the Harvard Immigration Project, he detailed over 200,000 undocumented children in the California school system alone, and has studied the psychological impact of immigration status on young people.

    “No question, growing up illegal can lead to all sorts of devastating outcomes,” he says in his office overlooking Broadway, where he is currently co-director of immigration studies at NYU. An animated and highly articulate speaker, he speaks rapidly and with great passion about the plight of the undocumented.

    “This is the first year ever that illegal immigration to the United States has exceeded legal immigration, and the children of immigrants are the fastest growing section of the child population,” he says.

    As for undocumented students: “The schools look the other way. They have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. But the clock is ticking, and in a few years these kids will graduate high school and try to enter the labor market. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

    “Many times they don’t know themselves that they’re illegal until they go out and try to find a job. It’s a huge shock.”

    There are no figures available for the number of undocumented children in New York City schools, in part due to a Supreme Court ruling designed to protect the right of every child under 18 to a free education.

    In 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187, a landmark initiative that barred undocumented people and their children from accessing social services like public education. California courts deemed the measure unconstitutional, and in 1995 the Supreme Court voted to strike down the measure, making it a violation of federal law for public schools to require proof of immigration status for enrollment.

    At the time it was a victory for immigration advocates, although one side effect of the ruling has been to make accurate numbers of undocumented children difficult to ascertain, and to turn the subject of immigration status into a taboo subject for teachers and educators.

    According to Eduardo Penaloza, education advisor at the Mexican consulate in New York City, the numbers are high. While the U.S. census recorded around 120,000 Mexicans in New York City, the consulate estimates the numbers are much closer to half a million, with the population in the tri-state area nearly a million.

    “One problem is that many undocumented adults arrive here with an appalling level of education,” he says. A direct, serious man with short, tousled hair, thick eyebrows and a pronounced accent, Penaloza spoke bluntly about the problems of illegal immigrant parents.

    “They come from rural areas, and when they put their kids in school here, they can’t support them at home academically. They want to help but aren’t sure how.”

    With a study from the Pew Hispanic Center estimating that 80-85% of Mexican immigration is illegal, the dimensions of the undocumented population becomes clear. And that doesn’t include the influx of Asian, Eastern European, Arab, African and other Latin American immigrants.

    For one elementary school in Brooklyn, out of 1300 students almost 500 were in ELL, or English Language Learners.

    “Tons of kids can slip through the cracks,” says Abby Smith, who teaches ELL for third graders. “Education levels in the home correlate with achievement in school. A lot of the reasons that they come here is that they want their kids to succeed, but they don’t have the means to make that happen.”

    While immigration status is an off-limits subject for Smith and her fellow teachers, she has come to know the tell-tale signs.

    “I had one boy last year, in first grade, with behavior problems. His mom was a single mom, there was no father in the picture. She came from the countryside in Mexico, and worked late hours in a sweatshop.”

    When the mother approached Smith for help, it was not a surprise to her that she was undocumented.

    “The mother told me that she was illiterate, and she wanted to help with homework, but couldn’t.”

    According to a Columbia University 2005 study, the problem of education attaintment is acute. For Mexican immigrants 24 years and older, 65% had failed to finish high school, 30% had finished the 6th grade, 13% had some college, and only 5% graduated college. In comparison, Dominicans, the second-fastest growing immigrant population, are way ahead with 18.3% having finished 6th grade, and 24.7% with some college.

    “It’s the worst out of Latin Americans, the worst in the city,” says Eduardo Penaloza. From his office at the consulate, he handles complaints and difficulties in education matters from Mexican nationals.

    One difficulty he has found is that as teenagers discover their immigration status, it can lead to a severe loss of motivation.
    “The mothers say, ‘Don’t worry about that today. Shut up, go to school and work hard.’ What we’ve found, though, is a growing number of Mexican students where the desertion rate is getting higher. We are observing the weakening of the family bond.”

    For parents like Laura R., working hard and hoping for the future is all she can do. When she came from Puebla three years ago, she brought her two young children with her, looking for better opportunities. They are both in school now, the seven year-old in bi-lingual education, the five year-old in total immersion English. Both of them, like their mother, are undocumented.

    “I plan to stay here for a long time,” Laura says in Spanish. With her jet-black hair pulled back in a ponytail, she has a hesitant smile and shy gaze that reveal the more conservative ways of the Mexican countryside where she was born.

    Like many immigrants, she only finished school through the sixth grade. She works as a babysitter, and her husband prepares salads in a restaurant. In a classroom where she studies English in Spanish Harlem, she discussed her situation.

    “I would like them to be American citizens,” she says of her children. “I worry about them being undocumented.”

    While she is aware of the debate over people such as herself, she has not completely made up her mind how she feels.

    “I cannot make up my mind whether it is just or unjust,” she says, when asked whether it is fair that her children will remain undocumented, no matter how well they do in school or how long they stay. “I think that if we pay for college, if we work hard, it is unfair. We work very hard and are already underpaid.”

    Whether that argument will be enough remains to be seen. According to John Keeley, director of communications at the Center for Immigration Studies, a immigration think tank that reflects the views of many conservative lawmakers in Washington, DC and the rest of the country, even children raised and educated in the US should not be made citizens, if only because it sends the wrong message to parents.

    “I’m not a supporter of the uneven application of law,” he said over the telephone from his DC office. “There is an expectation in our society that parents do not imperil their children, and I would argue that illegal alien parents who defy the laws of our country and enter illegally are imperiling the welfare of these children. This leads to some difficult situations, to be sure, but these parents have displayed breathtakingly bad judgment. Giving the kids amnesty just rewards really bad parenting.”

    Dr. Marcelo Suarez-Orazco takes a different stance, but agrees the situation comes down to a question of amnesty. “New York has been doing a marginally better job dealing with the issue than other cities, like Denver or Dallas,” he said. “But this will have to be decided on a federal level. And I don’t think there is the political will for an amnesty right now.”

    Even small-scale solutions are non-starters, such as the DREAM act, which would give legal permanent resident status to undocumented students who have been in the country at least five years.

    “We believe the DREAM act is an amnesty, and would affect about 50,000 people around the county,” Keeley said, detailing the CIS’s opposition to the measure. “It serves to be more of an undermining of American immigration law. If we had a DREAM act in 2006, what’s to say that a few years down the road we wouldn’t have to go through the same debate all over again?”

    This conservative argument appears to have the current political leadership in Washington in its sway.

    “The DREAM act has been dead in the water for two years,” Eduardo Penaloza says glumly.

    With 13% of New York City’s class of 2004 still in ELL at the end of four years, and 26% formerly in ELL, the numbers of undocumented students in city schools appears to be high, although it is impossible to tell. These students come from more than 140 countries, and speak many languages. To their credit, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have taken notice, and pledged an additional $20 million dollars in 2004 to improve ELL education. With the highest dropout rates in the city, ELL students are particularly vulnerable.

    “They sacrifice, and the come here to New York and find a 50% dropout rate,” says Abby Smith, of the parents of her ELL students. “Some of the kids might go to college, but it’s a gamble.”

    An even greater gamble appears to be taking place with the lives of undocumented children in the city. They are being educated as Americans- taught our language, culture and values, and until they graduate are given the expectation that they can succeed in our society no matter who they are. Yet many are in for a rude awakening, because when they leave school they will find themselves in limbo, people of no nation, having left behind the culture of one country and finding themselves outside the laws of another.

    Those who call themselves advocates are worse than slave owners who perpetrate the myth that unless you are white you do not matter.