Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Solve immigration without a quick path to citizenship

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Immigration reform on Obama agenda, but deportations are his main record
  • Obama also allowed deferred action for young people; eased re-entry rules
  • Politics over path to citizenship will stall reform again; why not take it out of the mix, he says
  • Navarrette: Undocumented immigrants, who help economy, deserve path to legal status

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- What is President Obama up to? When it comes to immigration, it's usually no good.

After all, this is the same president who ran for re-election packaged as a kinder and gentler alternative to cold-hearted Republicans who wanted illegal immigrants to "self deport" while, back at the ranch, the Department of Homeland Security was removing illegal immigrants 24/7 at a record pace. In the 2012 fiscal year that ended September 30, an unprecedented 409,849 people were deported. This was an increase from the previous year and it occurred despite policy changes -- i.e., those spelled out in the March 2011 memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton urging prosecutorial discretion -- that were supposedly going to limit removals to hardened criminals.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

In four years, the administration has removed a record 1.5 million illegal immigrants. And while administration officials may insist that many of them were guilty of felonies and thus less sympathetic, they leave out that under current law, a nanny or gardener who is deported and simply re-enters the country is a felon.

But there are two bright spots in Obama's immigration record. Last summer, the White House announced a policy change that lets undocumented young people avoid deportation by applying for deferred action and two-year work permits. And last month, in a much more obscure change, the administration said it would ease requirements to help undocumented immigrants who seek permanent residency and must return to their home countries to do so.

These folks currently have to wait up to 10 years outside the United States before being able to legally re-enter. But there is a waiver that gives them permission to return to the United States sooner if their U.S.-based families would suffer an extreme hardship from the separation. Under the change, immigrants can remain in the United States while applying for that waiver.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Now Obama wants to go further. According to the New York Times, Obama plans to finally make good on a 2008 campaign promise and push Congress in the next few months to move quickly on comprehensive immigration reform. His plan, which he is expected to unveil in the State of the Union address on February 12, includes a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Opinion: Dispel the immigration myths

It won't be easy. For one thing, there is the politics. As immigration reform advocates have learned over the last 12 years, there is no magic formula. From 2001 to 2007, Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress; from 2009 to 2011, it was Democrats who controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And either time, nothing got done on immigration.

And there is always a deal breaker. In 2005-2007, the last time that Congress took up this debate, the big obstacle was guest workers. Republicans insisted on language that would have brought in a few hundred thousand guest workers to do jobs that Americans aren't doing. Under pressure from labor unions, Democrats objected. The result was a stalemate.

Give me your huddled masses... but no Ph.D.s
Report on U.S. immigration system

This time, the major sticking point is likely to be citizenship. Democrats, including Obama, have said they won't budge on their demand that undocumented immigrants get not just legal status, but also a pathway to citizenship. Naturally.

The GOP brand is so toxic with Latino immigrants right now that we could be talking about millions of new Democratic voters, which is precisely why the GOP won't go along with immigration reform if a direct path to citizenship is in the mix. As for whether it should be, I don't think so.

Here are three reasons why not:

-- Illegal immigrants don't care about citizenship nearly as much as politicians do. Their concerns are practical, not ideological. They want driver's licenses, the freedom to go to work without living under the threat of being picked up and deported and the ability to go back and forth between the United States and their home country;

-- As long as Republicans are dead-set against citizenship, we'll never get a deal on immigration reform because -- unlike the health care debate -- this issue doesn't unite Democrats. Many of those in the Midwest and South remain adamantly opposed to legalizing the undocumented. So without Republican votes, it's back to square one; and

-- U.S. citizenship is something special, and it has great value. It ought not to be bartered away in a round of horse-trading. By all means, those who are legalized should be allowed to become citizens, but only by their own effort and on their own steam. There should not be a roadblock to citizenship, but nether does there need to be a direct pathway.

Opinion: Both parties must lead on immigration

Politicians always play the same game when it comes to immigration. Democrats ask for the moon and stars, and the Republicans go into orbit. They want away from the table, and Democrats don't have the votes to do anything without them. So nothing gets done. Each side blames the other. Back to the drawing board. The status quo is preserved. See you in 10 years.

But, when that happens, the people who lose are the very ones who many people say they want to help -- those 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States and contribute to our economy. They're caught in suspended animation, not belonging to one country or another. They deserve a pathway to legal status, and a final resolution to a debate that really isn't as difficult as some make it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT