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Dan Kowalski Headshot

Path to What, and When?

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House Speaker John Boehner is set to unveil his counter to the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill. The one-page GOP set of principles could be aired just prior to President Obama's State of the Union speech on January 28th.

Observers focus on whether or not the GOP plans will exclude a 'path to citizenship,' but the real question is at once more subtle and more important: Will the GOP plan lead to 'green cards,' and if so, when?

Current immigration law divides all visas into two main groups: temporary visas such as tourist, student and some temporary work visas such as H-1B for high tech and H-2A for crop pickers, and permanent immigrant visas, a.k.a. 'green cards,' that allow the bearer to work for anyone (or for herself) and to live in the U.S. for life.

A significant feature of a 'green card' is the owner's right, after three to five years, to apply for U.S. citizenship. Thus, if the GOP plan leads, sooner or later, to 'green cards,' then it also leads, in time, to the right to apply for citizenship.

If the GOP is intent on shutting off any potential 'path to citizenship' for new immigrants, it will have to create something new in immigration law, a type of 'permanent temporary' visa that allows the owner to live and work in the U.S. permanently, yet never 'upgrade' to green card status.

This question is the heart of the debate now playing out among immigration reform advocates, some of whom are willing to accept (for the time being) 'half a loaf,' versus those who insist that a path to citizenship must remain a part of any comprehensive reform. Many point to recent polling showing protection from deportation as more important than a path to citizenship for many Hispanics and Asian Americans. And a recent open letter from DREAMers asks advocates to 'focus on a practical legislative solution for immediate relief for families, even if it doesn't include a special path to citizenship.'

In any case, whatever new type of visa is created, Congress must address the horrible current visa backlogs that compel people to cross illegally today rather than wait 30 years or more for a green card.