In a potential breakthrough on an immigration overhaul, President Barack Obama has hinted that he would be open to a reform bill even if it lacked a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people here illegally.
Obama reiterated his preference for a concrete route to citizenship. But he said he doesn’t want to “prejudge” what might land on his desk and would have to evaluate the implications of a process to allow people get legal status and then have the option to become citizens.
“I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” Obama said of the differences between a special citizenship pathway and legal status.
Gainesville immigration attorney David Kennedy said in the debate, the concept of a pathway to citizenship has been “hugely” misunderstood and undermined reform efforts.
“Nobody has ever proposed just giving people citizenship,” Kennedy said.
In fact, the “special pathway” — as proposed in last year’s Senate bill that failed to gain traction — was complex and lengthy, with about a 12-year wait total. And crafting a specific pathway with the law does not rule out the possibility to become a citizen, he said.
“Anybody who becomes a permanent resident can apply to become a citizen later on. If you have been lawful permanent resident long enough, you’re eligible for naturalization,” Kennedy said.
On Thursday, House Republican leaders released immigration principles that would allow millions of adults who live in the U.S. unlawfully to earn legal status after paying back taxes and fines. The proposal was greeted negatively by many conservatives who oppose granting any kind of legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.
The Republican blueprint for immigration reform is “vague” as far as the next step for legal residents, Kennedy said, but makes clear that there not be a “special” route for people affected.
“What they’re saying is there doesn’t need to be a pathway to citizenship that would allow people to cut in line,” he said.
If Congress were to move forward on legislation that would allow people to gain legal status, the White House likely would insist the millions affected by the measure have the option to eventually become citizens, even if a special pathway is not prescribed.
Many immigration advocates see legal residency status as the best option to be expected from the deeply divided Congress.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Election Officials, said Friday in a news release that the GOP’s effort was a “critical first step.”
“We are encouraged by the first step which the Republican House leadership has done with the release of these ‘principles’ on immigration. We believe this is a good faith effort to move the process forward,” Gonzalez said. “However, we do expect actual legislation to follow these ‘principles’ soon.”
Gonzalez said that a “viable path to earned legalization” and maintenance of “channels for citizenship for those already here” are essential elements of legislative reform.
“Once legislation is produced with a clear timeline for action, GALEO is committed to work with both Republicans and Democrats to get immigration reform accomplished this year,” he said.
Locally, leaders in the poultry industry have stressed urgency of reform due to the negative impact of state laws on agriculture and its ability to employ immigrants. Georgia, like other states, has crafted laws in the absence of federal action, including a 2011 bill that has been appealed and partially blocked by a federal judge.
“We are pleased that the dialogue appears to be continuing in Washington, and we hope that a compromise can be reached in the coming year,” Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said in an email.
Kennedy said a more comprehensive reform to address future immigration is likely further away.
“A comprehensive reform is one that addresses every dysfunctional part of the system, and we do need to eventually address all the dysfunctional parts of the system,” he said.
One example in a myriad problems includes a work visa system so wrangled with dysfunction and expense “most employers simply can’t do it,” Kennedy said.
There’s more than a 20-year wait for many types of legal immigration, he said.
“It used to be there was a way to get over here,” he said. “Now it’s wait in line and do it the right way, but a 20-year line is the same as no line at all.”
Pathway to citizenship or no, the sense of legal relief would be immense if reform was passed, Kennedy said.
“I think people would be dancing in the street — it doesn’t matter what it is — if people can come out of the shadows and not be worried about being deported any more,” he said.
Full citizenship, however, remains the ideal.
“Obviously we would rather have something where people don’t have to remain second-class citizens with no chance of obtaining citizenship because that seems in some way fundamentally unfair,” Kennedy said. “If you work hard and pay taxes, you should be granted the rights of a full citizen.”
He sees the average person as being more sympathetic to immigrants, with less of the hateful, xenophobic sentiments that often dominate the dialogue.
“I think people understand the issues a lot better,” he said. “They understand we need these workers and these are good, decent people just trying to raise families, and it’s not right to punish them.”
If reform passed, Kennedy also said the Hispanic community’s relationship with law enforcement would greatly improve. Clients have said they don’t report crime out of deportation fears.
And in general, enforcement priorities can be recalibrated to what matters, he said.
“If all the people who are not criminals come out of the shadows, we can focus on the people who don’t want to come out the shadows,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report