05/30/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Why the 'Path to Citizenship' May Be More of a Labyrinth

Co-authored by Sara McElmurry and Nyki Salinas-Duda, Latino Policy Forum

SB744 (also known as the immigration reform bill) will soon be put to a vote on the Senate floor after a nod from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Meanwhile, the media is busy touting the still-unrealized legislation as "the biggest victory for advocates of immigrant rights in a generation" because a so-called "path to citizenship" provision for the undocumented -- the "centerpiece of the legislation"-- remains intact.

We at Latino Policy Forum are some of the very advocates who should be celebrating this supposed victory. But, rooted in reality, we've yet to break out the champagne flutes. Why? Should SB744 pass, the "pathway" will be far from straightforward for most immigrants. Meandering at best and labyrinthine at worst, the bill is full of potential tangles, pitfalls, and dead ends.

The pathway is at least 13 years long, and it's not a straight shot. First, an applicant will live a decade as a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI), then three years as a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) before he or she is able to apply for citizenship. Bottlenecks are practically built into the process: As currently outlined, SB744 would allow a one-year window (250 working days) for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants to apply for RPI status, a proposal that would likely leave the government scrambling to process an influx of 48,000 new cases per day.

And while 12 million people may embark down the path, decidedly fewer will see its end. Even some U.S. citizens would have trouble meeting SB744's laundry list of requirements in these tough economic times: a minimum of $3,000 per person in fines and application fees (nearly $8,000 for an average American family of 2.59 people, keeping in mind that immigrant households tend to be larger and include extended family members), and a near-spotless work record, even as 11.7 million Americans were unemployed in April 2013. (A proposed V-visa for families would relieve some of these issues, but details remain to be seen.)

Most undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. to work (common knowledge that's been confirmed by academics, policymakers, and data: 94 percent of undocumented men ages of 18-64 participate in the work force). Undocumented folks act as an economic stimulus to the country's languishing economy, and their positive impacts are well-documented.

But one in five of our country's low-wage workers are undocumented immigrants, meaning a high percentage of these folks are toiling away in low-skill jobs and informal industries, often resulting in extremely low or inconsistent pay. In fact, the 25 percent of undocumented families would automatically be disqualified for RPI status simply for earning annual incomes of less than $20,000. (The bill sets the income requirement at $30,000 for a family of four, or 125 percent of the federal poverty level.)

LPR applicants will also be required to demonstrate a consistent work history over their 10-year tenures as RPIs, with no gaps longer than 60 days. The requirement poses significant challenges in today's uncertain economy, with proof of employment potentially difficult in the informal sectors that employ many immigrant workers. (DACA-eligible youth are facing a comparable problem with their own burdens of proof, leaving many unable to obtain deferred action.) Stay-at-home moms and dads -- the primary caregivers to thousands upon thousands of U.S.-citizen children -- will be hard-pressed to meet this requirement.

Of course, the path is strenuous by design, delivered as promised by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" who forecasted its "tough but fair" nature as far back as January.

Maybe tough is fair. But impossible is not. And completing (or even starting) a journey down this so-called pathway to citizenship is out of reach for far too many. A consequence of this "reform" may be an underclass of permanently undocumented immigrants. By including a labyrinth posing as a pathway, SB744 is poised to exacerbate the very issue it is designed to fix.