I’d like to think that Newt Gingrich, the current GOP front runner, has come out squarely in favor of a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Not because I support his presidential candidacy, but because rejection of mass deportation as a solution to America’s broken immigration system raises the level of the national debate about immigration. At least he’s not ginning up the same old sound bites about securing the border and building fences.
But, the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, Gingrich’s proposal falls far short of what is needed to fix the broken immigration system. In fact, his idea would lead to the mass deportation of millions of people and the demise of scores of American families.
The cornerstone of Gingrich’s plan is the so-called “citizen review panels” which would consider whether an undocumented immigrant’s personal circumstances merit a reprieve from deportation. Gingrich likens the idea to the draft review boards of the World War II era.
But listening carefully to Gingrich it becomes clear that under his plan very few undocumented immigrants would even qualify to go before the review panels. Only those that have been in the U.S. for more than 25 years would be considered, even if they have compelling equities such as U.S. citizen relatives, a record of paying taxes, good moral character, and a consistent work history.
A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., only 35% have been in the U.S. 15 years or more—even less have been in the country for more than 25 years. That’s more than 7.8 million people who, according to Gingrich, would be targeted for what he calls “dramatically easier” deportation. It’s not clear what Gingrich means by that ominous phrase, but I imagine it doesn’t include much due process and fairness.
Yet Gingrich’s proposal shines when compared to Mitt Romney’s. Romney suggests that undocumented immigrants, all 12 million of them, should turn themselves in, be given a transition period to get their affairs in order, and self-deport. It’s obvious that Romney hasn’t a clue when it comes to fixing the broken immigration system. Romney bases his proposal on the idea that the undocumented—many of whom have close family ties to America—can simply go home, get in line, and return legally. He obviously doesn’t understand—or worse, doesn’t care—that the broken immigration law includes a myriad of daunting legal obstacles which prevent undocumented immigrants from returning to America and their families for at least a decade or more. His proposal is as ridiculous as it is unworkable.
On the other hand, Romney and Gingrich both argue forcefully for an immigration policy that will attract the best and brightest to America—the innovators, entrepreneurs, and scientists. On this point—although neither would likely admit it—both GOP front runners agree with President Obama. Recalling a time when America opened its doors to highly skilled immigrants to shore up its competitive edge, President Obama has called for innovation, education, and rebuilding of America’s infrastructure. This necessarily implies an immigration policy that keeps America open for business.
But what neither Gingrich nor Romney seems to get is that high skilled professionals and creative entrepreneurs won’t come to the U.S. if we do not fashion an immigration policy that restores and protects due process. Just ask the scores of business people and scientists who have been stymied by an overly restrictive immigration bureaucracy or targeted for special registration and prolonged security checks over the past decade. (Note: you may need to contact them via email or Skype because many have immigrated to other, more welcoming, countries).
The subtext of the current immigration debate is that undocumented immigrants won’t do what they should to gain lawful immigration status. This assumes that compliance with the immigration law is as easy as filling out a passport application at a local post office. What none of the candidates seem to understand is that under the current law there is simply no way for most unauthorized immigrants to comply, as much as they might want to, whether they remain the U.S. or go back to their native countries.
Nevertheless, Gingrich’s proposal, as deeply flawed as it is, recognizes that wholesale removal of 12 million is not a solution. And, if nothing else, that position is a welcome addition to a Republican immigration debate that has thus far been limited to little more than sound bites about border security, boots on the ground, and fences.