Over the summer, as critics excoriated ICE’s detention centers as concentration camps, congressional Democrats approved an emergency bill that threw another $4.6 billion at the border security apparatus. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi defended the legislation as a “necessary evil” to “get resources to the [detained] children fastest.”
Her comments were hardly out of character: Pelosi’s formal request to her colleagues to approve the spending measure came six years to the day after the then-Democratic-controlled Senate voted through a “comprehensive immigration reform” package that would have allocated ten times the amount of this year’s bill to militarize the southern border. Unlike the emergency funding measures, however, that failed measure also included a purported carrot: a “pathway to citizenship,” the holy grail for liberal politicians and pundits.
For a decade and a half, establishment Democrats have bent over backward to demonstrate their support for the proposal. Even outside the halls of mainstream liberalism, a “pathway to citizenship” has become popular. It’s included in both Bernie Sanders’s immigration platform and the recently adopted Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) “Support for Open Borders” resolution.
It might be tempting to view a “pathway to citizenship” as a direct riposte to militarized ICE raids and concentration camps on the border — a humane call for inclusion amid violent acts of exclusion. Yet this view obscures the proposal’s origins as the liberal establishment’s alternative to grassroots activists’ far more radical demand for “unconditional amnesty for all.”
The Origins of the “Pathway to Citizenship”
In the spring of 2006, millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets on several occasions, culminating in a mass boycott on May 1. Reviving the radical spirit of May Day, striking immigrant workers paralyzed various industries across the United States, while solidarity work stoppages took place in Mexico and other Latin American countries as well.
The immediate spark for the mega-actions was the House of Representatives’ passage of HR 4437 (commonly known as the Sensenbrenner Bill) in December 2005. Among other punitive measures, the legislation would have immediately turned all undocumented immigrants in the country into felons and criminalized anyone who dared offer them assistance.
The sheer force of these mobilizations killed HR 4437. But the working-class organizers behind the national day of protest on March 25 and the Great American Boycott also put forward their own list of ten demands. At the top was “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.” (Other points included “no fence on the border, no increase in the number of immigration agents, no criminalization of the undocumented, an end to the raids and to deportations that divide up families.”)
Yet this socialist-oriented pole was not the only current within the broader immigrant rights movement. As veteran organizer Jesse Díaz recounted in 2007, Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez quickly set up the Somos America coalition “in direct opposition” to the militant grassroots organizers, enlisting certain sectors of organized labor and national NGOs, and “call[ing] for a ‘path to citizenship’, as opposed to an unconditional amnesty.”
In the intervening years, the liberal establishment has poured millions of dollars into foundations and organizations, such as Reform Immigration for America and the Silicon Valley–funded FWD.us, in a bid to channel the energy and anger on display in 2006 into a more palatable, pro-business “comprehensive immigration reform,” with a “path(way) to citizenship” as its centerpiece.
The Concept in Practice
The turn away from “amnesty” and toward a “pathway to citizenship” has concrete consequences.
In 1986, Congress passed (and Ronald Reagan, of all people, signed) the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The bill, though far from progressive, contained an “amnesty” provision that established relatively expansive and straightforward legalization procedures for the general population, as well as a specific program targeting agricultural workers. These provisions granted roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants permanent residency within nineteen months of their applications’ approval.
Fast forward to 2013, and the drafters of the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill that passed the Democratic-controlled Senate (S.744) took great pains to stress that their legislation did not include “amnesty,” but rather a “pathway to citizenship.” This “pathway” was essentially cut from the same cloth as those included in the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills of 2006 and 2007, and it was built around a new Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status.
RPI status would have provided authorization to live and work in the United States for six years, but its strict eligibility requirements would have immediately disqualified roughly 4 or 5 million of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country at the time. Even for those who did qualify, renewing the status would have been difficult.
Generally speaking, immigrants would have to maintain a clean criminal record, demonstrate an income or resources equal to at least 125 percent of the federal poverty level, and — if not primary caregivers — prove that they had been continuously employed during the six-year period. Bouts of unemployment longer than sixty days would have been grounds for revoking RPI status.
But that’s not all. In theory, after enduring ten years in RPI purgatory, immigrants would then have to pay a thousand-dollar fine — on top of any back taxes owed — before applying for legal permanent residency. In practice, two separate clauses would have considerably lengthened RPI’s period of legal limbo.
The first was the so-called “back of the line” provision stipulating that the government could only begin issuing green cards to RPI immigrants after clearing its entire backlog of requests, which one prominent immigration lawyer estimated could take at least two decades. The second obstacle was the bill’s “border triggers,” which required DHS to certify that it had achieved “persistent surveillance” of the southern border before offering legal permanent residency to RPI immigrants.
To that end, S.744 would have allocated $46 billion to further militarize the southern border — including the construction of what is now infamously called “Trump’s” border wall — in addition to drastically increasing funding for interior enforcement.
In other words, the “pathway to citizenship” is fundamentally rotten — a euphemism with the goal of coaxing the undocumented “out of the shadows” and into the surveillance dragnet of the Department of Homeland Security.
Already, worker organizing is risky in a society where nearly half the population lives paycheck to paycheck, a massive carceral system casts a long shadow over the meager remnants of the welfare state, and union rights are constantly under attack. It becomes all the more difficult if being arrested or laid off may also result in deportation, as recently demonstrated by the massive raids that took place in Mississippi. Such intimidation has a legal basis: in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can essentially fire undocumented organizers with impunity, arguing that key NLRA protections do not apply to such workers.
Despite providing nominal authorization to live and work in the country, a “pathway to citizenship” would not remove the constant threat of deportability hanging over the heads of the undocumented. It would lock them into a vulnerable and precarious legal status for decades, while simultaneously providing employers and state agents more power to stamp out any rumblings of militancy.
A Socialist Alternative
The appearance of a “pathway to citizenship” in DSA’s platform does not amount to a tacit endorsement of an RPI-style status: the resolution offers a scathing critique of mainstream proposals for “comprehensive immigration reform” and their “empty promises of protection.” But what it does point to is the relative lack of attention socialists have paid to the content of “legalization” proposals in recent years, even as movements to abolish ICE and national borders have gained steam.
For example, Suzy Lee’s otherwise excellent piece in Catalyst treats “amnesty” and a “pathway to citizenship” as functionally equivalent and mischaracterizes the Democratic Party as having championed the former over the past two decades.
The party’s 2016 platform only calls for a “path to citizenship for law-abiding families,” and its American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 requires immigrants to meet either education, military, or employment requirements before receiving permanent residency. Even those politicians considered the most ardent supporters of immigrant rights, such as Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, have effectively opposed amnesty through their promotion of a torturous “pathway to citizenship.”
This is not a question of semantics, but rather one of clarifying distinct political projects. When socialists unwittingly adopt the vocabulary of corporate Democrats without putting forward our own clear proposals, we cede ground to well-funded elite forces.
Such politicians don’t just cave in to Republican demands — they also embody the interests of the employers and industry associations who back them, and depend on a flexible, vulnerable, and highly exploitable immigrant workforce to turn a profit. Enacting an interminable and highly disciplinary “pathway to citizenship” would serve these groups well, whereas “immediate and unconditional amnesty” for all would go against their material interests, because it would drastically increase working-class power.
Immediate and full legalization of all undocumented people living in the country is a logical corollary to calls for abolishing ICE and concentration camps, and it’s absolutely necessary if we are to push the effort to revitalize the labor movement — and the broader struggle toward a democratic socialist society — to a new level.
Whether under the banner of “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all,” “citizenship for all now,” or a similar battle cry, we must clearly distinguish our position on legalization from that of the liberal mainstream — and insist on swift, universal, and radical action.