Can there be meaningful immigration reform without citizenship?

CPAC presented a panel on immigration today. I wasn’t there, but this report suggests that the panel was an improvement over last year’s, which was basically a cheerleading session for amnesty and a path to citizenship. Unlike last year, today’s panel included one member, Derrick Morgan of the Heritage Foundation, who opposes that agenda.

The panel was supposed to discuss this question: “Can there be meaningful immigration reform without citizenship?” The answer is “yes” if one believes that amnesty represents meaningful immigration reform. And because illegal immigrants would gladly accept amnesty, there is no credible argument against the proposition that amnesty represents meaningful immigration reform.

The real question is not whether amnesty without citizenship is meaningful, but whether it would be acceptable as a resolution of the immigration debate.

Many, perhaps most, conservatives would accept that resolution if (1) they could be confident in border enforcement going forward and (2) they could be confident this resolution would be final. Most conservatives understand that large scale deportation, even assuming that it is desirable, isn’t feasible.

Thus, the main argument against amnesty isn’t the pretense that we can purge the country of large numbers of illegal aliens, but rather that granting amnesty would encourage more illegal immigration. Confidence in border enforcement, if it could somehow be attained, would take care of this concern.

But conservatives still couldn’t be confident that amnesty without citizenship would hold as a final resolution; to the contrary, I’m fairly confident that it wouldn’t hold. The fact that CPAC asked whether there can be meaningful immigration reform without citizenship strongly suggests what should be obvious in any case: most of those pushing for comprehensive immigration reform are unwilling to stop with amnesty.

Accordingly, if Congress implemented the House leadership’s amnesty but no path to citizenship approach, the Democrats would immediately begin clamoring for a path to citizenship. They would argue, correctly, that the U.S. has created a permanent legalized underclass deprived of basic rights available to their neighbors (taxation without representation, and all that). It would no longer be valid to reply that this underclass consists of those who are here illegally and who, under the law, should be deported.

Democrats would thus be as well-positioned as they are today to flog the immigration issue with Hispanic voters. And the next time Hispanics voted en masse for a successful Democratic presidential candidate, we would be basically where we are today on immigration, except that conservatives would no longer have a strong argument as to why the immigrants in question shouldn’t have all rights associated with citizenship.

Returning, then, to CPAC’s question, I say that there can be meaningful immigration reform without citizenship, but that it would probably be impossible to stop there.

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