Instead of comprehensive immigration reform, House Republicans have produced an eight-paragraph statement of principles—and the mere existence of all those sentences is encouraging. House Speaker John Boehner obviously wants very much to pass immigration legislation. Whether he can do so may turn on the difference between two words—“citizenship” and “legalization”—and whether House Republicans see both as synonyms for “amnesty.”
In a sense, they’d be right not to see any difference. Millions of foreigners are unable to pursue their dreams of coming to the U.S. because of immigration restrictions. Legalization just adds injury to their insult: It may not provide all the benefits of U.S. citizenship, but it grants a rare privilege to those who crossed the border illegally while continuing to shut out the law-abiding masses.
Sadly, U.S. immigration policy has never much honored such scruples. At best, the immigrant experience has been messy, unfair, and sometimes manically ad hoc. It’s worth noting, however, that American immigration has also been one of the great successes in the history of nations, the benefits of which grow more pronounced in a more global economy. The real-world options for dealing with 11 million undocumented immigrants come down to three: Deport them, legalize them (with or without a path to citizenship), or do nothing about them.
Both sides of the debate say they detest the status quo, which allows undocumented immigrants to stay but marginalizes them economically. Deportation? President Barack Obama has already deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, with little to show for it except family devastation. That leaves some form of legalization or citizenship. The institutionalization of a second class of residents who don’t have political rights is far from ideal. However, provided the ultimate legal hoops are not too onerous and legalization is not tied to the government’s success in meeting enforcement targets for which no immigrant can be held accountable, it may be a compromise worth making.