Gingrinch’s wrong approach to immigration

Last week we acknowledged Newt Gingrinch’s courage to bring some common sense in the false and dangerous narrative Republicans have created around immigration and immigrants.

Gingrich is the only candidate in the Republican race to declare that expelling the 12 million undocumented people already living in the United States would be costly and unfair -a position that buck’s the largely immigration-enforcement-only stance of conservatives. Folks who have been here for a quarter of a century and shown good behavior should be allowed to become lawful residents, he proposed.

That sounds great, but the devil is in the details. Gingrich would ask immigrants who have been in the country without legal status for 25 years or more to go through a citizen’s review process managed by the Department of Justice. He would set up community committees charged with reviewing individual cases and determining whether a person should stay or go home. The applicant would be required to demonstrate strong ties to the community, having children, no criminal record, no use of public benefits, English proficiency, and pay at least a $5,000 fine. If the person were allowed to stay, under no circumstances would this new legal resident be able to gain citizenship.

We have a few problems with this plan.

The 25-year requirement is an arbitrary timeframe that undermines the very purpose of this plan- which is supposedly to keep families together. What about a mother of three who has been in the country for 18 years? Or a student or worker, with siblings in the country but no children, who has lived here for only 15 years?

The individual hearing idea sounds onerous and inefficient. The plan expects millions of undocumented immigrants to come forward and apply for a temporary legal status, while waiting to make their case in front of a committee. Even if half eligible immigrants decide to take the risk, the ongoing review process will be costly and take years to complete.

The denial of citizenship raises civil rights questions and political suspicions around disenfranchisement. Historically, the United States has forbidden permanent residents to participate in federal elections partly because obtaining the right to vote motivates them to become citizens. Why should the law be different for this new group of constituents that has already lived here for so long and dutifully payed taxes? There is absolutely no solid reason to create a second class of residents. Instead, the move reeks of a political agenda to lock out potential voters– many of them low-wage Latinos living in red-states but likely to vote Democrat.

Lastly, Gingrinch -as do his colleagues in this race- continues to pander to conservative voters by feeding the false idea that the United States can control illegal immigration by securing the southern border. The reality is that, by official counts, 45% of the undocumented entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. The place to control illegal immigration is the workplace. But acknowledging that much would be an admission that many businesses in low-wage industries -hotels, restaurants, nursing homes, meatpacking- function with foreign workers willing to do low-wage jobs the average American, even in the recession, won’t take.

Everyone across party lines and races wants a more efficient immigration system; come later or sooner, this means legalizing undocumented workers and re-evaluating our enforcement strategies.

Gingrinch’s plan shows a profound misunderstanding of our complex immigration problem and it will not work. Replacing comprehensive immigration reform with a patchwork approach is a recipe for more delay and division.