09/03/2010 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is 'Back of the Line' Citizenship for Unauthorized Immigrants in the U.S.?

Last month, after a quick, quiet, morning vote approving approximately $600 million in border security funding, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office issued a statement calling for "comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders, cracks down on unscrupulous employers, and requires those here illegally to get right with the law, learn English, pay taxes, pass criminal background checks, and go to "the back of the line."

A week or so later, Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) echoed Senator Reid:

We have to know who's here.  They have to register.  They have to pay a fine.  They have to have a background check.  They have to be law-abiding, working; and I think those people get in the back of the line and are given the opportunity to earn legalization.

Thus, what was once a "path to citizenship" for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States became, for a time, "earned citizenship." Now, it seems the language of legalization has again shifted to a "back of the line" citizenship.

So, what is "back of the line" citizenship? No one I talk to seems to know (or at least, is willing to discuss) anything specific about the changing terms of extending citizenship to the estimated 12-14 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. However, the legalization side of comprehensive immigration reform indicates that legislative decisions may be underway regarding what "the line" for documentos might look like.

There is very little doubt that some form of citizenship program will be extended to the estimated 12-14 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. However, some things to keep in mind:

  • The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that "About three-quarters (76%) of the nation's unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico."
  • The Pew Hispanic Center also estimates that "a growing share of the children of unauthorized immigrant parents -- 73% -- were born in this country and are U.S. citizens."  According to Pew's analysis of the most-recent Census data, "An estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the offspring of unauthorized immigrants."
  • While I find no current estimates regarding the professional skill sets of unauthorized immigrants, it seems reasonable to assume that a large majority of unauthorized immigrants -- particularly those from Latin America -- are unskilled laborers.
In short, the unauthorized immigrants currently living in the Unites States are overwhelmingly Latin American, are probably Spanish-speaking (or even, do not necessarily speak English), are often parents of U.S. citizens, and are difficult to employ legally in this brutal economic clime for unskilled laborers.  This last point may be the key to understanding the shifting political language toward a "back of the line" citizenship.

In May, a report issued by the House Joint Economic Council (JEC) found that:

  • "Latinos are... over-represented in two other sectors that were hit hard during this recession: the manufacturing sector and the leisure and hospitality sector. Manufacturing employment fell by 16% and employment in the leisure and hospitality sector fell by 4% from December 2007 to December 2009. In 2007, 11.6% of the Hispanic workforce was employed in the manufacturing sector compared to 11.2% of the overall population, and 11.8% of the Hispanic workforce was employed in leisure and hospitality sector compared to 8.5% of the overall population."
  • "In 2007, Latinos were under-represented in the only sector that expanded during the recession, the education and health services sector. In 2007, 21% of the labor force was employed in the education and health services sector compared to 14.4% of the Latino workforce."
The JEC report did not discuss immigration status.  However, again, it is reasonable to assume unauthorized immigrants (like Latinos, generally) are overrepresented in the shrunken unskilled labor pool; and underrepresented in the expanded education and health services sector.  In other words, like Latinos, generally, unauthorized immigrants now tend to be employable in all the wrong places and at the wrong time.

So, how does all of this relate to "back of the line" citizenship?

A responsible path to citizenship (or whatever you want to call it) is one that takes into the account the effects an infusion of 12-14 million largely unskilled workers (including, potentially, many non-English-speakers) will have on overall U.S. employment economy.  As it stands, "illegals steal jobs from Americans" because unauthorized immigrants tend to be more-willing to work for lower wages and fewer (if any) benefits than their documented, citizen counterparts.  This is especially in the unskilled employment economy.

With the job market for unskilled workers contracting -- particularly in the construction, hospitality, and manufacturing sectors where Latinos are overrepresented but nevertheless represent far less than a majority of workers -- where can the economy employ 12-14 million new, largely unskilled citizens? Can the economy currently employ 12-14 million new, largely unskilled citizens, at all? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no, the U.S. economy cannot current employ unauthorized immigrants as citizens. Citizens are compensated at or above a guaranteed, minimum wage; protected by employment and workplace safety standards, etc. In short, citizens are more expensive than illegals.

That said, while I have yet to find anyone to confirm that this is the case (no one wants to talk path to citizenship this election season), my thought is that the term "back of the line" citizenship serves a twofold purpose:

A political term:  To go to the back of the line hearkens a punishment for children who misbehave, who break the rules. As a term, "back of the line" also carries with it denigrating racial undertones rooted in America's past.  In terms of political messaging, the term "back of the line" works to assure a frustrated non-Latino electorate that unauthorized immigrant criminals will be punished and that they will remain second-class residents until the needs of a more-deserving (or at least, more legitimate) "front of the line" immigrant group has been satisfied.

A policy clue:  "Back of the line" implies a waiting period during which the rest of "the line" is processed through the complex, draconian, "broken" immigration system the comprehensive immigration reform bill is (in theory) supposed to overhaul.  How will "the line" be formed?  What criteria will be used to determine who is at the front and who must wait?  As it stands, is likely that these questions will go unanswered at least until after the midterm elections in November.  Nevertheless, employment economics will likely be an essential feature of policy discussions about legalizing the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States.  While preference may be given to the parents of citizen children, and English-language fluency will likely be non-negotiable prerequisite, expect skilled laborers to receive a preferential hat-tip in the naturalization process.  Unskilled and unauthorized immigrants, on the other hand, may necessarily face an indefinite wait at the "back of the line" for an economic recovery that can sustain their legal entry into an U.S. unskilled labor economy that remains as stagnant as it is brutally unsentimental.