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Immigrants Yearn to Be Americans, Not a Permanent Underclass

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Cross-posted at Huffington Post.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to…be part of a permanent underclass in American society…”? Oops. Wrong America.

While the italicized words above are mine, the opening words come from the inspiring poem by Emma Lazarus. Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and written in the 1880s, Lazarus’ poem cast America as the colossus that welcomed newcomers seeking to become new Americans. Her poem is a quintessentially American expression that gives greater meaning to the light of freedom extended by Lady Liberty.

Considerably less inspiring has been the policy idea expressed in Jeb Bush’s new book, Immigration Wars. He argues that the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in America should get legal residency, but not a path to citizenship. “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences,” he wrote. “In this case, that those who violated the laws can remain, but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

The ensuing political dust-up focused on how Bush’s new position represents a flip-flop from his previous principled support for a path to citizenship. The political back-and-forth focused on what his botched attempts to clarify and then backpedal from this new position means for Jeb’s readiness to run for president in 2016 (he sure seems rusty as a candidate). And then, rapid-fire debate focused on what the position he took in his book might mean for the growing number of Republicans in Congress who have come out solidly for a path to citizenship since the 2012 election.

But largely absent from the discussion is what the policy position espoused in his book — legal residency without citizenship — might mean for America.

This question of citizenship vs. residency is no mere technical policy dispute. This idea of denying citizenship to 11 million people — a population the size of Ohio — goes to the heart of who we are as a nation. Yet the policy of creating a permanent underclass of non-citizens is being actively promoted by key players in the debate, from leading lawmakers such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) to conservative thought leaders such as Charles Krauthammer and Reihan Salam.

So, let’s consider what such an approach would mean for the nation’s soul.

A policy that grants work permission but not a way to earn citizenship would require Congress to affirmatively and intentionally institutionalizes a permanent sub-class of non-citizens. The message to this group of mostly Latino immigrants would be this: you are good enough to cook for us, clean for us and take care of our children, but you can never become one of us — let alone vote or be seen as truly equal.

A policy that says “you are permanently one of them and can never be one of us” does violence to our nation’s core values. We Americans proudly say we hold certain truths to be self-evident: that all people have rights, no matter what they look like or where they come from, and that the genius of America is that we are permanently evolving — transforming “them” into “us” in a way that makes “us” stronger.

A policy that demands immigrants remain a permanent second class — that they get to the back of the bus, and stay there — is not worthy of America today. It harkens back to eras in which entire populations were excluded from the “cherished fruits of citizenship.” It would be a tragic step back to institute policies today that, at a minimum, evoke moral tragedies that have left a blot on America’s history — from slavery, to Jim Crow laws, to segregation; from the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the detention of Japanese Americans in World War II, to the roundup of Muslim Americans after 9/11; from denying workers the right to organize, to denying women the right to vote, to denying LGBT families the right to equality.

Now, some in the GOP seem willing to ignore the lessons of history and close the golden door of citizenship on immigrants yearning to be recognized as fully American. Really? Do you really want to say “no citizenship, no how”? Do you really want to say “you can’t be one of us because you ignored the small, creaky ‘keep out’ sign at the border and heeded the huge, lit-up-in-lights ‘help wanted’ sign a few yards in”? Do you really want to say “you don’t deserve citizenship because you sacrificed everything to make a better life for your family, just like millions of other Americans have done have throughout our history”?

There are numerous policy, political and practical reasons to say no to a “let them work but not be citizens” immigration policy. But before we even have to go there, it should be obvious that telling 11 million people in America that they can never be Americans is inconsistent with who we are and who we want to be.