Don't make immigrants second-class citizens
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By mark alvarez

Legalizing the undocumented is critical to immigration reform, but misuse of the phrase "path to citizenship" has complicated efforts.

In January, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services identified the most common path to citizenship as that "which allows a green card holder (permanent resident) of at least 5 years to apply for naturalization." In general, applicants must demonstrate English proficiency, understanding of U.S. civics and be good moral character.

Becoming a citizen takes time. Current debate indicates that undocumented immigrants would have to pass through a preliminary stage to get to permanent residence. The White House webpage asserts that "the President's proposal creates a provisional legal status."

This additional path would lead to permanent residence after time had passed and criteria had been met. Some lawmakers would make the undocumented stop there. This misconstrues "permanent residence," which has built-in opportunity to qualify for and obtain citizenship. Creating second-class residents would be misguided.

Confusion is understandable. The immigration system has become needlessly dense and complex. Lawmakers across the political spectrum advocate for simplification. Legal immigration should be easier. So should legalization. The path to citizenship should not be a labyrinth.

Despite harsh laws and record deportations during the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants have not disappeared. Most have lived here for more than 10 years. Ninety percent have lived here for a least five. They have waited for reform long enough.

Undocumented youth, or "Dreamers," have advocated impressively for humane changes in immigration law, but many other undocumented immigrants have not been heard. The Salt Lake Dream Team and others have been holding community forums to involve them.

Several weeks ago at a meeting held in Spanish at Centro Civico Mexicano, an undocumented man in his 40s said, "No politician has ever come to my home and seen how I lived. Nobody has asked me what I want."

A Latino businessman in his early 30s spoke about the importance of highly educated professionals in the economy. He suggested that priority for legal entry and legalization be given to those with college degrees.

A woman of about 50 disagreed. "Not all of us have the same opportunities. It would be unfair to favor professionals. I have worked for 15 years cleaning hotels even though I could have done more. That should count."

Job qualifications and work experience matter, but so do length of stay, family ties and community contributions. People will look for fairness in the process.

Undocumented immigrants know that legalization will be tough. They would accept background checks and reasonable fines. Most seek residence with an opportunity for citizenship, but some would be happy with work permits or indefinite legal status. Almost all want the chance to travel outside the U.S. to visit family and friends.

The challenge of immigration reform does not concern bad people, but rather bad law and political cowardice. The law and politics need to change.

Undocumented immigrants have a quiet determination and work ethic worthy of admiration. Their path to residence and citizenship, if so desired, should be direct and unencumbered.

Mark Alvarez is an attorney who lives in Salt Lake City and hosts "Sin Rodeos," a Spanish-language radio program.