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Arc of History Bends Toward Full Citizenship for America’s Immigrants

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Idea of Permanent, Second-Class Status Out of Step With Today’s Values and Principles 

As our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington today, the immigration debate in Congress is providing politicians with a chance to prove whether they have learned from history or are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The core of the immigration debate in Washington is how to resolve the status of the 11 million men, women, and children who consider the United States their home, but aren’t considered official Americans.  Does Congress offer them a path to citizenship, or a path to deportation?  Some, such as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are suggesting a “compromise” that amounts to a sort of second-class status for undocumented Americans.  But as key civil rights leaders are reminding us, relegating whole groups of people to a permanent second-class is simply un-American.

As NBC’s Carrie Dann writes in an article titled, “Immigration Reform Activists Seize on ‘Moral Tone’ of Civil Rights Movement,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) noted, “African Americans understand the inherent power in citizenship.  As a community we are especially sensitive to issues involving incorporating individuals into the American system that don’t provide full citizenship.”  And Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration policy for National Council of La Raza (NCLR), said, “This is a conversation about the value of a person.  It was the core of the conversation then, and it is the core of the conversation now.”

The differing Republican takes on citizenship have been on display this August recess.  This week, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) expressed optimism that House Republicans could support citizenship and, in response to a question proposing citizenship for only select DREAMers – and not citizenship for the rest of the undocumented population – Senator McCain stated, “you’d still be faced over time by the same issue of 11 million people living in the shadows…Ours is not engraved in concrete, but a path to citizenship would have to be a part of it.”

And in Alabama, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) gave similar remarks in support of citizenship and immigration reform, noting, “right now who are those people who are here illegally or undocumented?  They are part of a family.  And that’s what people – I think has not been communicated to the American people, that they are not just one person out there in isolation.  You’ve got 3 children, two are here as US citizens, the other came when he was 4… are you gonna send his mother back?  You send his dad back?  You send the older brother back?  And I’ve come down to say no!  We let ‘em stay.  Y’all may think I’m copping out, but with my Christian faith, it’s hard for me to say that I’m gonna divide these families up.” As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post reported, “Bachus represents a district that as of last year was the most Republican in the country, and in 2012 he faced a Tea Party primary that was partly about immigration.”

Meanwhile, as the New York Times highlights, Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) expressed support for an “alternative that would allow families to stay together, that would allow people to work, that just would not make them citizens…Because that makes me very nervous as a policy… I think that the plan I’m suggesting is the compromise plan. It’s somewhere out between kick them out and give them full citizenship.”  And Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) justified his support for the permanent underclass position – legalization but no path to citizenship – by stating, “Not everyone wants to be a citizen.”  According to the local Porterville Recorder newspaper, Rep. McCarthy “pointed to a statistic he said showed 42 percent of those eligible to become citizens with the 1986 immigration reform actually took advantage of citizenship.” Rep. McCarthy’s claim that undocumented immigrants do not desire citizenship is a myth used to justify support for a permanent underclass position.  In fact, as groundbreaking April 2013 polling of undocumented immigrants from Latino Decisions showed, an overwhelming 87% of undocumented immigrants expressed their intention to become a U.S. citizen if provided the opportunity through legislation that changed the law.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Our nation’s experiences with second-class status should remind us that the arc of history bends toward justice and equality and is not on the side of those comfortable with creating a permanent underclass of Americans.  While Republicans like John McCain and Spencer Bachus understand these lessons and the value of citizenship, some of their Republican colleagues like Steve Pearce and Kevin McCarthy should rise to the challenge of forging an America where the ‘us’ get stronger by including the ‘them.’