Immigration Reform: Does It Matter if its a path to Citizenship or Residency?

01/16/2013

With all the talk of immigration reform and the various proposals politicians and media are throwing around in the news lately, one has to wonder does it matter if new legislation offers citizenship or lawful permanent residency to the estimated 12 million illegal people in the United States.

While there are distinct differences between citizenship and residency, the overall issue should not be whether an illegal person gets one or the other.  Rather, the focus should be on legislation that meaningfully addresses the problem of undocumented people living for years in our country and how to turn their presence into a gain for the United States. 

Whether immigration reform offers citizenship or residency to illegal people should not make a difference because most lawful residents are eligible for citizenship anyway.  Whether an illegal person becomes one or the other through reform will not change the expected taxes immigrants will have to pay or the penalties they will incur for a committing a crime, two major concerns of opponents, already addressed by existing immigration laws.

One could argue U.S. Citizenship is the highest privilege an immigrant could gain and they should make amends for their past illegal status before acquiring such a status.  Yet one could make the same argument for acquiring resident status.  In other words, why should legislation make one benefit more important than the other?

Most people are unaware that if an immigrant who overstayed a lawful past entry into the United States marries a U.S. Citizen, they can become a U.S. resident.  Another fact unbeknownst to many is that those same people are not guaranteed permanent residency for merely marrying a Citizen. 

Applicants married less than 2 years at the time of applying for permanent residency receive what is known as "conditional lawful permanent resident" status for 2 years, wherein on the second anniversary, the resident must file an application to remove the conditions on their status and prove their marriage was bona fide and they did not commit a crime during the provisional period. 

Similarly, immigration reform could and should place stringent conditions on new immigrants/citizens.  Historically, immigration laws take a "one-two" step approach to acquiring citizenship.  That is, one must first be a resident to then be eligible to become a U.S. Citizen.  Whether one becomes a resident through a family relationship, employment or extraordinary talents, the law gives those people the privilege of residency first, which can be lost under certain conditions such as abandoning the United States for a long period or for committing crimes.  This does not need to change because of immigration reform. 

If Congress wants to offer citizenship for illegal people under a reform law, it should not change the main goal of legalizing the estimated 12 million illegal people that are here with strict conditions imposed.

Immigration reform should take an approach of creating requirements for all new residents or citizens in which they will have a provisional period of proving and maintaining their worthiness.  Whether proposed legislation wants to give one benefit over the other should not be a distractor, nor should it create a stumbling block for a well-thought reform law. 

It is this writer's view that so long as proper conditions are thorough, realistic, and enacted to allow illegal people to earn their stay in the U.S., it makes no difference if the law gives residency or citizenship in one broad stroke.  

 
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