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Redefining 'Path to Citizenship' In An Effort To Gain Consensus

Whether immigrants who came to the country illegally should get a path to citizenship has been a major point of contention in the immigration debate, and one of the main reasons House Republicans continue to oppose the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in June.

Now Reprepresentative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who heads the House Judiciary Committee, has been making noise about a possible middle ground: immigrants in the country illegally would get provisional legal status, and then those that qualify, could use the existing immigration laws to gain legal permanent residency, and ultimately citizenship.

Unlike the Senate's immigration bill, there would be no special path to citizenship for those who came to this country illegally.

The Wall Street Journal quoted an enthusiastic-sounding Charlie Spies, of the advocacy group Republicans for Immigration Reform saying ,"Over the past week, there has been buzz about this approach, especially among Republicans who want to get something done."

But those who favor citizenship for the estimated 11 million in the country illegally say such a  proposal wouldn't actually count as a path to to citizenship, since only a tiny minority of unauthorized immigrants would likely qualify.

"In effect what you are doing is creating underclass of people who will never be citizens or permanent residents," said David Leopold, an immigration attorney who is a past national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

According to Leopold, if immigrants gain a provisional status and then have to rely on current rules to gain permanent status and then citizenship, most would need a close family relative or an employer to sponsor their application. Yet very few of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country have those relationships.

According to the libertarian Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh, "almost all" of the unauthorized immigrants in the country wouldn't be able to get citizenship under Goodlatte's proposal. He said the main exceptions would be for immigrants who marry U.S. citizens or are willing to enlist in the military. 

Nowrasteh concluded that Goodlatte's idea isn't "disingenous" but, in an interview with Fronteras Desk, he said "it is not a serious compromise that will bring proponents of a path to citizenship to the table."

So in a blog post today, Nowrasteh outlined his own compromise idea: offer multiple paths for immigrants in the country illegally.

One path would involve few obstacles and would grant immigrants the right to permanently live and work here. Another would be a longer, more expensive path that would lead to legal permanent residency and eventually citizenship, as outlined in the Senate's bill.

Nowrasteh believes such an idea could be palatable to both sides of the debate.

Would Republicans be willing to accept a path to citizenship if there is also an incentive for immigrants to opt for an easier path by forgoing citizenship? And would Democrats allow multiple paths if the path to citizenship they insist on is still one option?

"Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have," Nowrasteh wrote in his post. "The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves." 

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.