Conservatives in the House of Representatives are rejecting the growing bipartisan consensus for permitting undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship. Instead, one prominent negotiatior, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID), suggested a legal status “compromise” that would keep 11 million immigrants in a probationary grey area for an indefinite period of time, unable to participate in the full rights of citizenship. As the Washington Post warned, this so-called compromise would establish “a permanent underclass of workers.”
Creating a second class of Americans is not only unsustainable, but also damages the so-called American dream of equality and justice for all — a point proven each time the US has used the law to exclude a group in its history.
Slavery and Reconstruction
After the founding of the nation, lawmakers stipulated that citizenship excluded free and enslaved Africans, who comprised roughly 20 percent of the entire American population in 1776. The Supreme Court reaffirmed in the infamous Dred Scott decision that slaves could not claim citizenship, as they were considered property by the law. After the abolition of slavery, the law’s silence left African Americans in a legal limbo that denied them the right to vote and set the foundation for widespread segregation and economic exploitation. Even after the 14th and 15th Amendments nominally granted them full citizenship rights, state laws instituting poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, immobilized African Americans in a second class of citizenship.
The Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded the land that is now the American Southwest. In return, all Mexicans living on that land were to be granted full US citizenship. However, Congress and the Supreme Court denied American citizenship to Pueblo Indians and black Mexicans, though both groups had previously enjoyed Mexican citizenship. Pueblo Indians’ right to vote was revoked until 1924. Black Mexicans in Texas were given the choice to either stay in Texas and become slaves or be deported back to Mexico, where slavery was outlawed. Meanwhile, the courts chipped away at the property protections entitled to Mexican landowners as US citizens. Many new Mexican Americans lost their family land to white American settlers, throwing them into poverty for generations. Of course, Pueblos and black Mexicans’ property rights were immediately nullified.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
After initially encouraging Chinese migrant workers to come to the US and work on the Transcontinental Railroad, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to halt all immigration from China. At that point, large communities of Chinese immigrants, mainly in California, were permanently excluded from US citizenship. The law also threw families in limbo, as Chinese men could neither bring their families to the US nor leave the country, as they would be barred from re-entry to the US. Amendments to the law extended the law blocking entry to all Asians regardless of their country of origin — even those born in the US. American-born Chinese who traveled abroad were blocked from returning to their homes in the US. These restrictions pulled families apart and ensured that Chinese American communities already established would stagnate for four decades.
Japanese Americans were singled out as enemies during World War II and ordered to relocate to internment camps for the duration of the war. Japanese immigrants were already blocked from becoming full citizens, as naturalization laws banned citizenship for non-white people. American citizens of Japanese descent, however, were not spared from the internment camps, where they endured abysmal, overcrowded conditions for 3 years. When they returned, most found their homes looted or sold and their jobs long gone.
If this latest immigration reform does not include a path to citizenship, the shadow economy that exploits the ambiguous legal status of undocumented immigrants today could be cemented for decades to come.
Though the rights and restrictions of a second-class legal status are not yet articulated, Republicans have previously suggested granting permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria. But while permanent residents can apply for full citizenship after 5 years, undocumented immigrants would likely never attain naturalization. They would have limited access to health care, while certain other economic benefits, such as federal student loans, would be closed off entirely. They would also be denied the right to vote.
Without a path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants will officially inherit the mantle of the many Americans who have endured inferior rights based on a narrow idea of who “deserves” to be an American.