We are witnessing the most robust debate in more than a generation on how to reform our antiquated immigration laws to meet the demands of our twenty-first century economic and security needs. In coming up with a broad framework for this comprehensive legislation, we must stand firm against ideologies that do not serve our national interests.
To provide true reform, there must not only be a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, but such a pathway must be free of any unnecessary obstacles, such as getting stuck in a newly created “status” for undocumented individuals before being eligible to receive legal permanent status which is counterproductive. Clearly our government must be able to conduct background checks to weed out criminals, but once that is done, the next logical step is permanent residency which in turn must give way to full citizenship. Under current law, this waiting period is usually five years. Anything short of this will result in failure.
We have already experimented with laws that provide less than full citizenship to foreign workers. The “bracero” program of the late ‘50s recruited a record number of laborers from Mexico. Just through El Paso alone, over 80,000 braceros arrived in Texas on an annual basis. Within a few short years however, the program failed. By 1964, there had been numerous reports of underpaid, overworked, harassed workers which led the officials at the U.S. Department of Labor to refer to the program as “legalized slavery.”
Another example of such failed policy occurred in “post-war” Germany. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, approximately 3 million Turkish immigrants living in Germany who were unable to achieve full German citizenship are now less effectively integrated than other immigrant groups, and thus are more likely to be poorly educated, underpaid, and unemployed. In contrast, according to Sara Silvestri, a social scientist at the University of Cambridge, in the U.K. where full citizenship was granted to all qualified immigrants, Turks adapted to the British lifestyle, became fluent in English, and became involved in civil society.
The Germans learned from their mistake and over a decade ago reformed their immigration laws and provided full citizenship to their qualified migrant workers. I pray that our politicians also learn from past missteps and avoid marginalizing over 10 million individuals by only offering them an effectively permanent second class status in America.
Full citizenship is an honor and a tradition that must not be denied to any qualified immigrant in our country. Qualifications for becoming a citizen must be rooted in our heritage as a nation of immigrants and not in some newly designed artificial scheme being concocted by the restrictionists. Specifically, applicants must be able to pass a civics and history test, as well as show proficiency in English and show good moral character. Learning about our nation’s history and form of government is a vitally important way to encourage them to participate in our democracy, not a means for punishment.
As President Obama said in his State of the Union address: “We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe.”
Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media-Advocacy Committee