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Legalization and Citizenship: In the Eye of the Beholder

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As we wait for the House of Representatives’ forthcoming “principles” on immigration reform—and ultimately their bills—there are a variety of positions within the undocumented community regarding what they want to see out of reform. Some would be content with permission to work. Others feel their contributions and family ties in the United States should entitle them access to a path to citizenship. Among these various viewpoints, what constitutes a “solution” for immigration reform is in the eye of the beholder.

Isabel and her husband arrived in California from Mexico in 1996, without documents and with their 18-month-old son. “We came to this country with the hope that our son, who was a year and a half old, would have the opportunities we didn’t have—starting with the most basic, like three meals a day, which is something that unfortunately we didn’t have at his age, and education, something we also had much less of.” 

They’ve held all kinds of jobs so their three children (the oldest born in Mexico, and two others born in the U.S.) can get ahead.

This family represents hundreds of thousands of mixed-status families throughout the country: undocumented parents, who in this case have lived in the United States for more than a decade, with a 19-year-old DREAMer son who has received deferred action under the Obama Administration’s program, two U.S. citizen children, and the constant fear that their family could be separated at any moment by deportation.

Isabel knows exactly what she wants out of Congress: immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

“People who say that a work permit is enough—it’s because they haven’t had the chance to educate themselves, and I don’t mean academically, I mean about immigration reform, because citizenship is the only thing that guarantees families will be kept together…Obviously they want the fastest (path to legal status), but a work permit is a temporary thing, it’s not permanent. Perhaps at some point we’ll have to choose between a work permit or nothing, but our fight, for my family and many other families we know, is for citizenship.”

Her motivation for wanting citizenship? The prospect of a permanent solution to her immigration situation, and the opportunity to integrate into American civic life. 

“As an undocumented immigrant, the government knows you can’t work, but you still provide an ITIN number for your (tax) responsibilities…and if I pay taxes as an undocumented immigrant, they should give me citizenship, so that I won’t just pay taxes but also have the opportunity to vote and execute the responsibility and the civil rights that any citizen would have,” she says. 

If the House chooses not to offer a “special path” to citizenship for immigrants like Isabel and her husband, but does provide an accelerated path to citizenship for their DREAMer son who’s currently being covered by DACA, he will be able to petition for his parents when he turns 21 (2 years from now). Other factors also enter into the equation, including the need to increase the number of visas available. The family’s two native-born citizen children are under 7 and 5 years old, respectively, so they would not be able to petition for their parents for at least 14 years.

But Isabel maintains that the question isn’t whether she would have other paths if there is no “special path” in the legislation. The question, she says, is what constitutes a broad solution that will help millions and solve the problema once and for all.

“If I had the opportunity (to become a citizen) through my son, it would be welcome. But we can’t call something like that a victory when millions of families would be left out. They say that it would still be reform if the DACA children can petition for their families, but (statistically) the DACA children don’t come close to all 11 million. Immigration reform with a path to citizenship is the only way to guarantee a solution for the 11 million. When only a small group benefits, it’s just a vicious cycle. You help a few, but what about the others? Why not come up with a definitive solution for them? Why create differences, instead of offering a broad solution that includes everyone?”

Her message for Congress and the White House: “You are public servants. You’re in office because the people of the United States chose you, and the people have shown—in polls, with calls, with petitions, and with emails—that they support immigration reform with a path to citizenship. What you have to do is your job as public servants.” 

Regarding the anticipated Republican “principles” on immigration, she says: “Think very hard before you put out what you’re going to put out, because the elections are coming up and our (Hispanic) community will play a role.”