A solution to our immigration problem is a path to lawful permanent residency for undocumented immigrants without the full political rights of citizenship.

This solution gives immigrant advocates what they want the most while avoiding the things that opponents of illegal immigration fear.

I am a longtime advocate for the undocumented. It seems to have become the only issue I care about.

The reason is that I have taught so many undocumented students who stand to have their lives ruined if they are deported. They were brought here when they were very young, and they have parents who would have come here legally if they had the chance.

What is it I want for my students?

For them to be able to stay and raise families and have decent lives. They are sweet, decent, rule-following, inspirational kids; teaching them has been such a joy. I wish you could know them.

A path to residency is enough. When I dream for these kids, it is not first and foremost for them to vote or run for office. They just want a chance at a decent life.

In order to realize this humble dream, I think they are willing to defer political rights to the next generation. They can take care of their kids, and their kids can grow up to be president.

The key to solving the immigration issue is the center-right political leader. These folks are often sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, but they are concerned about the political effect of a path to citizenship and the magnet effect of legalization.

If Democrats alone are responsible for legalization, 12 million immigrants become citizens and vote Democrat in percentages that rival that of African-Americans.

Moderate Republicans who would like to help may see it as political suicide. A path to residency solves this problem because there’s no political payoff for Democrats or penalty for Republicans.

But wouldn’t lawful permanent residency serve as a magnet, inviting future waves of illegal immigration?

Three things would prevent this: a tightened border, e-verify and an expanded legal immigration system. The first two are in the process of implementation. Add expanded legal immigration and you have triple the security against future waves of illegal immigration.

I’ve had a number of heated discussions with those who have family members who immigrated legally. Admirers of legal immigrants argue that a path to citizenship is not fair to those who wait their turn.

There’s a flaw in this reasoning because almost all undocumented immigrants came here after reaching the conclusion that their turn would never come, that there was no line to wait in.

In our very flawed legal immigration system, which should be liberalized, a Mexican high school graduate with a family will have to wait decades before immigrating legally.

Nobody can wait that long.

But some people who are fortunate enough to fall into favored immigration categories have shorter waits and do patiently cooperate for years before being allowed to come.

A path to residency helps those who didn’t have a chance to immigrate legally, but still puts them behind legal immigrants in political status. If legal immigrants become citizens, they get to vote and run for office.

Permanent residents won’t have those political rights; in fact, their political status will be the equivalent of convicted felons who can’t vote.

Lawful permanent residency can satisfy liberals without scaring off moderate conservatives, and it takes politics out of a deeply divisive issue.

It’s moderate, right down the political center, and I believe it’s the answer to our immigration conundrum.

With lives hanging in the balance, we shouldn’t kick this can down the road any longer.

Sean McKenzie is a Methodist in Calhoun, Ga., who teaches high school and holds a doctorate in political theory from the University of Florida.

Share This