06/27/2013 10:30 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

The American Path to Citizenship: Mass Statelessness in America

All over the world there is turmoil about how nations turn immigrants into citizens. The debates lay bare distressing truths about racial and cultural divides. Generally, nations make the path to citizenship difficult or impossible, and create pools of stateless people, living in and alienated from their homeland.

There are painful examples in Italy, many former Soviet bloc nations, almost anywhere where national borders don't coincide with ethnic living patterns, and where specific histories bring ethnic and political groups into conflict. Latvia may be the best example of how to legislate mass statelessness.

In Latvia, there are over 300,000 stateless, non-citizens, about 14 percent of the population. They're mainly ethnic Russians who showed up in Latvia during the Soviet occupation. When Latvia became independent in 1991 it quickly enacted a law denying citizenship to those who came into the country, legally, after 1940, and in most cases to their children. They possess passports (marked "Alien's Passport"), but they can't vote, own land, serve in most public sector jobs, or serve in the National Guard. Many other commercial, social and economic rights are guaranteed only to citizens. There is a pathway to citizenship but it's difficult and has averaged only about 8,000 people annually since 1995. Sitting in the middle of this ancient nation is a population in residence for decades but legally and practically inferior to their neighbors and friends, with no end in sight.

Policies which create mass statelessness have daily consequences. They depress economic and political activity. They cause, intensify and reflect ethnic antagonism. Hopelessness and segregation are never good things, but extending their duration and intensity makes it worse. So it will be in the United States.

The current Washington consensus is that the pathway to citizenship for our 11 million residents (around 3 percent of our population) here without legal authorization should be difficult and painful. The Senate immigration plan require at least 13 years for them to become citizens. They would be required to pay a $1,000 fine, study English and civics, stay out of trouble with the law, and if some Republican Senators get their way, pay back taxes and forgo some health benefits. As President Obama says, the path to citizenship under a proposed immigration reform bill is "no cakewalk."

The stated reasons are almost all backward looking. These people violated our laws, stepped ahead of others who obeyed them, didn't pay taxes, were funded by American taxpayers, etc. It isn't necessary to accept or reject any of these assertions, because they don't, or shouldn't matter.

The non-stated reasons are troubling. One would think that conservatives, political and cultural, would be the first to demand the full integration of residents into the nation. The electoral consequences of a new group of voters, if it is a concern, should be addressed by cultivating them, not obstructing their right to vote. President Obama's "no cakewalk" policy does not serve any worthy political or social goal.

We did lose control of our borders, people did arrive here outside of the methods prescribed by law, and absent mass "self-deportation" we now have to decide what to do with them. The path to citizenship should be easy or hard based not on how we punish or vote, but on the nation's interest going forward.

That interest is in integrating these folks into our economy and our social structures as quickly as possible, and in reaffirming the American commitment to equality and fairness.
We will be better off as a nation if we have an infusion of new citizens legally and personally committed to our values and our communities. Unlike Latvia, the American Constitution guarantees that the children of non-citizens born on American soil are citizens. Like Latvia, the naturalization process now being debated in Washington makes the road to citizenship long and discouraging. The Latvian alternative of a mass of stateless non-citizens at the heart of our democracy will be as unsuccessful in America as it has been there. We can do better, do the sensible thing, but only if President Obama and his conservative opponents put the national interest above politics and punishment.