What we talk about when we talk about a 'pathway to citizenship'

The general phrase for legalizing undocumented workers means different things to different politicians

Members of the Gang of Eight may have different definitions of a "pathway to citizenship."
(Image credit: REUTERS/Samantha Sais)

The so-called "pathway to citizenship" is arguably the most contentious part of ongoing negotiations to craft immigration reform legislation. Yet as of now, no one knows exactly what that pathway even looks like.

In general, the phrase refers to a process that would allow undocumented workers living in the U.S. to become citizens. As competing proposals have shown, though, the particulars of what that process would entail and how it would be applied are very much up in the air.

The first and most pressing question is whether the pathway would be a new one created specifically for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented workers, or merely the old one available to prospective immigrants. Many Republicans stridently oppose a "special pathway," as Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) called it.

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It's that distinction that, in part, caused some confusion when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a big speech seemingly embracing a pathway to citizenship. Paul never mentioned citizenship by name, but the policy he described was, as many observers noted, very similar to other proposals that would allow undocumented workers to remain here legally. The big difference, as Paul later clarified, is that he does not support creating a new process to reach that end.

Here's David Grant from the Christian Science Monitor addressing that semantic problem:

Washington spends a tremendous amount of time focused on whether this politician or that one actually says the words "pathway to citizenship."

Republicans, generally, don't; Democrats, almost entirely, do.

That's because the term has become politically-loaded, largely because its often set against another explosive concept: Amnesty, or the idea that those breaking immigration law will be let off the hook for their crime. [Christian Science Monitor]

It's assumed that the bipartisan group of eight senators who are working on an immigration bill will reach a compromise on some sort of new pathway. Yet even then, they will need to determine how rigorous that process will be.

From Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown:

The Gang of Eight has sought to make the pathway tough enough so that Republicans can convince their party that it's not amnesty — but not so onerous that they lose support from the left, and risk repeating mistakes from past reform efforts.

Democrats are under intense pressure from the White House, labor unions and immigrant advocates to craft as clear of a path as possible to legal status and citizenship. That means no border-security benchmarks that must be met before undocumented immigrants can secure citizenship. No exorbitant fines and fees. And realistic requirements for proving work history, learning English, and passing criminal background checks. [Politico]

While some of those suggestions, like a standard background check, are fairly uncontroversial, others could be far more problematic. For one, some Republicans have said a secure border must be a prerequisite to giving undocumented workers citizenship. But some Democrats and the White House have balked at that suggestion, saying it would essentially delay implementation of a pathway for years.

Polls have found varying levels of support for a pathway to citizenship, largely because the question can be worded in so many ways. As The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement recently noted, the more specific criteria pollsters included as part the question, the more people tended to like the idea.

As to the broader question of how and if immigration reform can get done, the data underscore why key lawmakers have been carefully deliberating proposed changes and taking the time to figure out the specifics of what a proposed path to citizenship might look like. After all, the specifics are the keys to winning support from the public. [Washington Post]

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