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Immigrant Ties and the Path to Citizenship

In recent years, the debate about immigration in the U.S. has focused largely on how best to expel the undocumented: more border security, bigger fences, and even moats have been proposed.

It’s refreshing, then, to hear new ideas that acknowledge the humanity of those who immigrate to the U.S. Specifically, some have suggested that the amount of time an unauthorized individual has spent in the U.S. should be considered in evaluating their eligibility for obtaining citizenship.

Given the impractical and morally unacceptable nature of mass deportation, this proposal is clearly a step in the right direction. Joseph H. Carens, one of the top political theorists on issues related to citizenship, has argued that the right to stay for potential migrants should be based on the depth of the relationships and connections that they have developed in their communities of reception. In a book published last year titled Immigrants and the Right to Stay, Carens argues that

The moral right of states to apprehend and deport irregular migrants erodes with the passage of time. As irregular migrants become more and more settled, their membership in society grows in moral importance, and the fact that they have settled without authorization becomes correspondingly less relevant. At some point, a threshold is crossed, and they acquire a moral claim to have their actual social membership legally recognized. They should acquire a legal right of permanent residence and all the rights that go with that, including eventual access to citizenship.

Acknowledging the amount of time an undocumented workers spends in the U.S. is a smart first step for responsible immigration reform – but there are ways to take Carens’ approach even more seriously. First, under current proposals, those immigrants that would be able to regularize their status would nevertheless remain ineligible for obtaining full citizenship. This means that, in practice, they would become what Tomas Hammar has termed “denizens”: foreign nationals with a permanent right to stay but not a formal right to membership in the national body. As Hammar suggested, this status is problematic because it creates two classes of citizens -- one with full rights and another with limited rights -- marginalizing whole population groups and challenging the legitimacy of any democratic system.  

Second, while Carens suggests that ten years is a reasonable time for unauthorized inhabitants of a country to obtain full citizenship, these new proposals generally suggest a 25-year time frame. This would leave almost all unauthorized migrants currently in the U.S. without a solution. A recent study produced by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that only 35 percent of unauthorized adults in the U.S. have resided here for 15 years or more. By comparison, the same study showed that fully two-thirds of the 10.2 million unauthorized adults in the U.S. have lived here for 10 years. Carens’ framework is therefore not only more humane but also more realistic given the current demographic realities.

While these new proposals certainly begin the important work of thinking about responsible pathways to immigration reform, they still suffer from important flaws. However, compared to the exclusionary, nativist thrust of the current immigration debate, these new perspectives do sound refreshing, indeed.