President Obama: Don't Delay Citizenship Another Generation

Now that we are moving ahead with immigration reform, we should embrace citizenship as a positive value that strengthens the nation rather than putting unnecessary obstacles and long delays in the way of immigrants becoming citizens.
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This weekend we learned that the White House is writing its own immigration reform bill. This is one more piece of good news for the 11 million people in our country who live in daily fear of detention and deportation.

However, according to USA Today, the president's opening bid in the Congressional negotiations over immigration reform could be too weak. As reported, his plan would allow undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, but make them wait 13 years or longer to apply for citizenship. In practice this could mean people waiting another 15-20 years to be fully integrated into society as citizens. It also appears that the Administration's proposal would spend billions of dollars more on enforcement, even though there is now no net migration across the border.

It would be much better for the president to begin from a position of strength. Seven out of ten Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now that we are moving ahead with immigration reform, we should embrace citizenship as a positive value that strengthens the nation, rather than putting unnecessary obstacles and long delays in the way of immigrants becoming citizens.

The president's language on citizenship in his Nevada speech and State of the Union address has gotten stronger, but the policy still needs to catch up. The United States has a long history of including immigrants as full citizens. Two out of three undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for more than a decade. They are Americans in all but paper work. Our goal should be to have as many of our neighbors integrated into American society as full citizens as possible.

We should look to the highly successful Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy announced this summer as a guide to establishing an effective path to citizenship that has broad public support. DACA created a straightforward process for undocumented DREAM Act eligible young people to come forward and apply for temporary legal status. The policy avoided creating unnecessary obstacles or exclusions.

As a result, 440,000 people have already applied for DACA and 200,000 have been approved, according to data released on Friday. Not only has DACA received strong public support, but it has also inspired our nation, providing concrete evidence that the American people want to include -- not exclude -- undocumented immigrants from our society.

If we use DACA as a model, then the sensible thing would be for DREAMers, who've already submitted their paperwork and finger prints for their DACA applications, to be able to apply for Green Cards after the passage of immigration reform. And adults to apply for two-year temporary residence along the lines for DACA. That would be followed by a Green Card and the ability to apply for citizenship in another five years, which is how the current law works. That would mean at most a seven-year path to citizenship, which is a reasonable amount of time for a person to successfully go through the process of taking on the responsibilities and rights of becoming an American citizen.

As we bring undocumented families in from the shadows, we also have a unique opportunity to reform enforcement policies that are imposing devastating costs on families and communities. The Federal Government now spends $18 billion annually on immigration enforcement, outstripping all other federal law enforcement spending. More than 392,000 immigrants were detained in FY 2011, more than half of whom had no criminal convictions. Our goal should be a smarter system that makes our families safer rather than unnecessarily spending billions of taxpayer dollars on an increasingly privatized detention industry.

Outside of Washington, DC, hope is rising for immigration reform in 2013. More and more people are getting involved in the debate through their faith communities, schools and community organizations. One thing that is certain is that many people, particularly Latino voters -- who came out in record numbers in 2012 -- are watching the debate closely and looking for leadership.

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