THE BLOG
01/07/2013 05:58 pm ET

Choose Citizenship

The latest sign of how fast U.S. immigration politics are changing came last week from House Republican leadership.

On Thursday, in her speech nominating John Boehner as Speaker, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, Chair of the House Republican Conference surprised some people when she said that immigration reform would be one of the three top priorities of the House of Representatives.

The sea change in how politicians are talking about immigration actually began off-the-record when President Obama told the Des Moines Register that he'd get immigration reform done in his second term, since if he won reelection a big reason would be that Mitt Romney's anti-immigrant positions alienated Latino voters.

After that prophecy became true -- Obama took 71 percent of the Latino vote which rose to ten percent of the electorate -- a large number of influential Republicans took to the airways to say that their party needed to give up the idea of deporting 11 million people and embrace immigration reform if it wanted to have a future.

McMorris-Rodger's comments make it clear that the drumbeat for reform has not ebbed.

Now that there is consensus that immigration reform needs to be at the top of the national agenda, the next question is how to treat the eleven million undocumented immigrants who live and work in communities across the country. Answering that question will take a national conversation beyond Washington, D.C. that reflects on our values and history as a country.

That has me thinking about my own family history. My own grandparents came to the United States from Lithuania and Russia a century ago fleeing religious oppression and looking for a better life. They and their children helped build this country during some of its most difficult and prosperous years -- serving in the military, building businesses and giving back to their communities. As children of immigrants, my parents taught us that each person is created in God's image and that our country is best when we treat people with respect regardless of their background.

Now some pundits are floating the idea that we should fix our broken immigration system by creating a class of people who are allowed to live in our country but have no way to become citizens. I try to think about what this approach would have meant for my family. What would it have been like to have been consigned to a permanent legal underclass because of where they came from or when and how they arrived?

The American way on immigration has been different. Our policies have often not been very fair or humane, but we've aspired to incorporate immigrants into our society as full participants. Making way for difference is never easy, but the United States is better and stronger economically and socially as a result of rejecting the residency approach to immigration that has created two classes of people in some European countries.

Today's immigrant families are not much different than my grandparents. Two-out-of-three people in the U.S. without legal status has been here for more than a decade. They are Americans in all but paper work. When we relate to people in our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples and in our neighborhoods we don't ask each other for documents or treat people differently because they are undocumented.

Yet, we live in a situation now in which approximately eleven million people live in daily fear that their families will be broken up. Millions of children go to school each day worried that their mother or father will not be there when they return home.

That is why it is good news that leaders from both major political parties agree that immigration reform is a top priority and that we cannot solve our problems by locking up families or trying to force them out of the country.

This political shift also reflects a cultural change, led by immigrant youth who've stepped out of the shadows as Dreamers and shown that there is different way forward than dehumanizing, detaining and deporting people.

Over the past decade, and particularly over the past four years under President Obama, the federal government has made it much harder for people to cross the border. As a result, today there is essentially no net flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico into the United States.

The main question in the immigration reform debate will be about the status of immigrant families who have been living in the United States for many years. The choice will be between legalization of residency along the lines of European countries or providing immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

In making that choice between residency and citizenship we need to ask two questions, what is good for our families and what is the American way? The clear answer on both accounts is to reject the idea of permanent second-class residents and instead create a process for our neighbors and friends to be included as full American citizens.

There will be a lot of arguments and political claims thrown around the immigration debate over the next year, but choosing citizenship is ultimately what most comports with the day-to-day experience we have in our communities and our values as a nation.

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