“Tough, but fair.” That’s how President Obama described a critical element of any immigration reform plan:  a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants now living in the shadows. For these aspiring Americans, many of whom have been caught in our dysfunctional immigration system for more than a decade, a pathway to citizenship will allow them to become full members of our communities.  It’s the right thing to do—for our country, for our economy, and for our communities. And yes, the time IS now, and we cannot afford more partisan bickering and immigrant bashing.

So why is a path to citizenship so critical for reform, and what might “tough but fair” really mean?  Without a path to full inclusion, reform simply won’t work.  Without a path to full inclusion, we will be again left with an underclass in our communities.  The prize of U.S. citizenship comes with serious obligations, yet every day, thousands of would-be Americans come to our shores, sometimes risking life and limb for a chance to become one of “us.”  And why?  Because fairness is one of America’s core values.

Under both the Bipartisan Senate principles and President Obama’s plan, those seeking a path forward would be required to pay a fee and submit to background checks in order to receive a provisional status.  There’s nothing particularly controversial about that—criminal and national security checks are a long-established part of the immigration process and USCIS regularly requires filing fees, whether for a DREAMer requesting deferred action, or a long time resident starting the citizenship process.  And when it comes to keeping our borders safe and secure this illustrates yet another reason why real immigration reform isn’t amnesty, but actually a path to smart immigration enforcement.  Registration and background checks mean we know who’s here and can easily identify—and take action—if someone is a threat to our communities or national security.

But when the roadblocks begin to obstruct the road ahead, that’s when it stops being fair.  The requirement that would-be citizens pay back taxes is fair, but any plan should also recognize that undocumented immigrants already account for more than $11.2 billion dollars in just state and local taxes.  What about Selective Service?  Immigrant youth (males between the ages of 18 and 26) not already long to register, but we know—even before the President’s deferred action initiative—that these undocumented Americans so love this country that they want the right to serve in our military.

The plans call for additional fees and penalties, as well as a requirement that would-be citizens learn English and U.S. civics.  As under current law, under the proposed reform principles five years after receiving a green card, individuals will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship like every other legal permanent resident. Ironically, the commitment we would require for a green card is the same or more than we demand from long-term residents seeking naturalization. Many families will manage the financial burden, but for others, it will be out of reach.  That’s not one of our core values, either.

Much has been made about making those who might benefit from a path forward go to the back of the line, to wait until those who “played by the rules” make it through the lengthy and convoluted process.   But it’s our broken system—with decades-long waitlists for green cards—that caused these problems in the first place.  In fact, many of the 11 million who need reform are already “in line.”  Without meaningfully addressing visa backlogs, making someone wait at the end of a line to nowhere makes no sense.

If we’re going to achieve meaningful reform, any path to citizenship must be fair—and that means that it should not contain insurmountable obstacles that will dissuade people from even trying in the first place.  If it’s too tough, then it’s not fair.

What we have yet to see is whether Congress is actually going to work with the President to pursue meaningful reform and common sense workable ideas to fix this mess, or whether this historic opportunity will disintegrate into the same old partisan bickering and gridlock.

Call me an optimist—it’s not a label you will find frequently used by those who work with our immigration laws—but I know we can do this.

As the President said in Las Vegas “Now is the time.”

Written by Laura Lichter, AILA President

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