- - Friday, January 24, 2014

There’s a growing sense of optimism that Congress may actually get something done on immigration this year, now that House Speaker John A. Boehner has stated clearly that he will push forward a series of bills to fix our dysfunctional immigration system before this session is over.

This enthusiasm also responds to the growing support among House Republicans to bring undocumented people out of the shadows and provide them some form of legal status, short of citizenship.

Yet President Obama and many Democrats are not as happy with this new development. They are fearful that this may help the GOP reconnect with Hispanic voters and begin making considerable inroads with this key segment of the electorate.

They are acutely aware that their political gamesmanship over immigration may become obsolete if Republicans decide to take on immigration reform. Immigration, after all, was the key issue in their political strategy to demonize Republicans with Hispanic voters.

Concerned that the strong hold they have had in past elections on the Hispanic electorate may be at risk, Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats are determined to try to somehow continue milking politically the immigration issue.

The way they’re doing it is by insisting that legalization is not enough; that any immigration bill must provide the more than 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country guaranteed access to citizenship. If Republicans oppose a path to citizenship, their argument goes, it’s because they are prejudiced against immigrants and want to keep them disenfranchised.

Just a few weeks ago, former White House senior adviser David Plouffe described legalization without citizenship as “a second-class-citizen situation.” A few months ago, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said it was “not American.”

However, that inflammatory rhetoric is just not going to work with Hispanics. First, while it’s true that the overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters would like to see a path to citizenship, the reality is that the majority of them — 55 percent, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center poll — also think that providing undocumented immigrants relief from deportation is even more important.

They realize that what their undocumented relatives and acquaintances want is peace of mind; the stability and security to move on with their lives without the fear of being detained by the government. As Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, a network of immigrant-serving organizations, stated several months ago in a newspaper article, “For many undocumented people, citizenship is not a priority. What they really care about is a solution that allows them to overcome their greatest vulnerabilities.”

On the other hand, Democrats lie when they say that Republicans want to shut the door to citizenship for the undocumented. The House leadership’s proposal, as developed and articulated by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, would only deny a “special” path to citizenship for those who legalize.

It doesn’t prevent them from applying for citizenship. If they want to do so, nonetheless, they would have to follow the established process in current law. According to a study by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy, under the Republican plan, up to 6.5 million of those who legalize would have access to citizenship through the regular norms.

The issue is really not about a path to citizenship, but whether a “special” path should be provided.

Still, Mr. Schumer warns that “without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill; there can’t be a bill.” Will Mr. Obama and the Democrats play with the aspirations of millions of illegal immigrants and oppose and kill an immigration bill that will give them an opportunity to come out of the shadows because they want to continue to use the issue politically?

If they do, it will backfire on them, and Hispanics will turn against them. Hispanics already gave a pass to the president for not keeping his promise to deal with immigration reform in the first year of his administration, even though Democrats controlled both House and Senate at the time. They are unlikely to do it again.

Alfonso Aguilar is the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and is the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration.

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