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Republicans: Don't Worry About the Votes of the Unauthorized, Fear the Power of Their Citizen Kids

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With pressure rising and the president pushing, the Republican leadership just released its principles for immigration reform. Among the ideas was one many observers had expected and feared: creating a process of legalization for undocumented adults that includes "no special path to citizenship."

Actually, it will be a very special path -- in essence, blocked because it will be nearly impossible for such immigrants to ever become citizens. While the language is vague, it seems like the undocumented will start in a probationary status, then get behind a large backlog of those seeking to immigrate legally, and only be able to obtain citizenship under very limited circumstances.

Why the aversion to the already arduous path envisioned in the Senate bill, one in which the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants have a year to sign up, then spend ten years in a provisional status before being granted permanent status, and three more years later, eligibility for citizenship?

Part of the reason is principle: Republicans tend to believe that those who "broke the law" must make up for it -- or at least not be rewarded with citizenship. The problem is that this is a costly strategy and not just for the undocumented.

Research suggests that immigrant earnings rise with legalization, but there is also a second boost (on the order of 8 to 11 percent) from citizenship. This "citizen gain" comes because citizenship allows workers a wider range of employment possibilities, creates incentives for skill development, and sends positive signals to employers. A new multi-country study suggests that shorter paths produce larger gains.

It seems wasteful to leave dollars lying on the floor. If the goal is to have immigrants make up for breaking the law, wouldn't it be better to just have them pay all the fines and fees envisioned in the Senate bill rather than to handicap the entire American economy?

Another more quietly voiced rationale for severely constraining the path to citizenship is the fear that the formerly undocumented will vote Democrat -- as Rush Limbaugh put it, isn't a path to citizenship "a death sentence for the Republicans"?

While one Republican congressman did suggest that reform will produce "11 million Democrats," that need not be the case. After all, Republicans used to do a good job attracting immigrant votes (think of George W. Bush winning more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 reelection to the presidency).

Indeed, the best way to secure those votes might be including a path to citizenship. Here's why: It's not so much immigrants as their children that are the political prize.

About 10 of the 11 million are adults -- and since many of them will not meet the time and other requirements in the Senate bill to obtain the initial status of a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI), we're actually talking about 8 million. To make the passage from RPI to being a lawful permanent resident (LPR) requires maintaining income and employment over time, paying fees and back taxes, etc., and some have estimated that about half will fall out as a result.

So let's overestimate and say that 5 million will make the cut to LPR status. In 15 years, they get their first chance to become naturalized (recall the process above). Assume that half immediately sign up -- highly unrealistic since only about half of those gaining legal status under the last major authorization experience (the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act) were naturalized a full 23 years after the reform (which had a much shorter path to citizenship).

But let's be generous and assume that we see 2.5 million new voters in 15 years, many of whom will look favorably on a Republican Party that did its part for reform.

What if instead citizenship is largely ruled out and the formerly unauthorized are relegated to a sort of permanent second class status? Anyone in Republican strategy circles contemplating how that might impact the attitudes of their children?

Estimates suggest that around 5.5 million children have at least one undocumented parent. Roughly 4.7 million are between the ages of 3 and 17; more than 80 percent are U.S. citizens and the rest would likely gain citizenship since even the Republican principles include a carve-out for young folks who came to the country "through no fault of their own."

That's nearly 5 million people who automatically become voters in 15 years -- nearly twice the number of their parents who would be derailed from citizenship under the Republican plan. Moreover, given the ways in which naturalized citizens and documented and undocumented immigrants are often woven together into the same households and communities, another number may be more relevant: the 12.9 million (already) citizen children in immigrant families who will be of voting age within 15 years.

While any way in which we can end the current wave of deportations will be welcomed by immigrants and their allies, the memory of who said and did what tends to persist. In California, for example, Republican support for Proposition 187 in 1994, a ballot measure targeting undocumented immigrants, helped produce a nearly one-party Democratic state just one generation (18 years) later.

A recent Fox News poll suggests that more than two-thirds of the American public support a path to citizenship and notably 60 percent of Republicans agree. The public opinion is there, the economics are there, and so are the politics. Republicans, don't create a special path to the collapse of your party; create a real and inclusive path to citizenship.

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