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More Misguided Immigration Reform

The ACHIEVE Act Sham

by AMALIA PALLARES AND TANYA GOLASH-BOZA

One of the supposed lessons of Obama’s electoral victory was that Republicans could no longer afford to advocate an enforcement-only position on immigration reform. So it says something that the party’s first nod in that direction was extraordinarily weak.

At the tail end of 2012 and of their careers, retiring Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) introduced the ACHIEVE Act, which would provide legal status to a narrow group of undocumented youth. But this proposal does nothing to appeal to Latinos because it provides no real path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Although Hutchison calls this proposal her version of the DREAM Act, it is not. The core purpose of the DREAM Act, first proposed in 2001, is to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth, who are Americans in all ways but one – legal citizenship rights.

The ACHIEVE Act had no chance of passing in the lame duck session, yet Hutchison and Kyl hope their successors, Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), will take it on when the new Senate convenes. They want this bill – not DREAM – to be the basis for negotiations, with “no citizenship” as their bottom line.

This isn’t going to work. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 86 percent of Latinos in the United States believe that migrants to this country – even unauthorized ones – deserve a chance to become citizens. This belief is shared by 72 percent of all Americans. It is the core of true immigration reform: the rest is just bells and whistles.

A path to citizenship is the politically astute route: it is also the only route that is not morally bankrupt. The ACHIEVE act would create a permanent underclass of denizens by refusing citizenship rights to a large sector of society – nearly all of whom are youth of color. Less than 4% of undocumented immigrants come from Europe. This move hearkens of laws passed in 1790 that restricted naturalization to free white people. For much of our history as a nation, citizenship was restricted by race: it was not until 1952 that all racial and national origin restrictions were eliminated. In today’s political climate, it would be impossible to pass laws that overtly restricted Latinos and Asians from citizenship rights. ACHIEVE nevertheless would accomplish this.

In addition to being unjust, ACHIEVE is based on erroneous assumptions about the law. Hutchison’s refusal to grant a path to citizenship is based on her mistaken belief that undocumented people should not be permitted to cut in the line of people who have applied legally. This stance assumes that those visa applicants who have yet to arrive in the country and the undocumented who have been here most of their lives are in the same line. They are not.  The long wait for those applying for visas for family reunification – over two decades for many Mexicans and Filipinos – is due to unrealistic quotas for immigration visas. If Hutchison is concerned about those waiting in line, she could have submitted a bill to increase the number of family-based visas.  But she did not.

Hutchison has refused to support previous versions of the DREAM Act because, although she has claimed empathy for undocumented youth and a desire to integrate them, she consistently has stated she will not support a path to citizenship. Even when sixteen youth were arrested for civil disobedience in her San Antonio office, and despite extensive lobbying by youth in a state where 86% of Latinos favor the DREAM Act, she voted against it 2010. By making ACHIEVE her last bill introduced in the Senate, Hutchison wants to ensure that integration with no path to citizenship becomes her lasting legacy.

Jon Kyl has contended that a path to citizenship is not necessary because those immigrants who qualify for ACHIEVE can attain citizenship through marriage. This position is misguided. It sets up a kind of marriage derby where love becomes a negligible factor. Kyl’s “anybody” also excludes all homosexual couples whose marriage is still not recognized by the federal government. And it excludes most heterosexual married couples where one is a citizen and one is undocumented because undocumented immigrants who have accumulated more than 365 days of illegal presence — which they need to qualify for ACHIEVE — have to return to their country of citizenship for ten years to qualify for legal residency based on marriage.

Given the current laws, this path of “citizenship through marriage” is a sham.

These Senators apparently want their legacy to be the creation of a permanent underclass: people who can remain here, but who are denied citizenship, access to health care, educational loans, and the right to vote.

The time has come for us to stop piddling around with half-measures and phony gestures. None need to heed this call more than Republicans, who stand to lose even more credibility if they continue to appease xenophobic elements in their party, who are already appalled by something as weak as ACHIEVE. The Republicans are in for a dime; they may as well throw in the dollar and join the American consensus on the issue at last.

Immigration reform must include a path towards citizenship for undocumented immigrants – young and old. ACHIEVE, in its failure to do this, is as unhealthy for Republicans as it is for immigrants.

Amalia Pallares is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Marcha! Latino Chicago and the Immigrant Rights Movement (Illinois 2010).

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor Sociology at the University of California, Merced, and the author of Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America (Paradigm 2012).