NEW YORK TIMES – – By JULIA PRESTON
Published: November 20, 2013
Glendy Martínez is waiting anxiously to see if Congress will ever pass legislation to allow immigrants like her, without papers, to stay in the country legally. But frankly, she says, she does not care if it will include any promise of citizenship.
With the earnings from her job in a Houston hair salon, Ms. Martínez, 30, is supporting one child born in Texas and three others she left behind in her home country, Nicaragua.
“So many people back there depend on those of us who are here,” she said. “It would be such a help if we could work in peace and go back sometimes to see our children.”
As President Obama looks for a way to salvage a broad overhaul of the immigration system, he opened the door this week to a piecemeal series of smaller bills as a way of getting past the objections of the Republican-run House, which refused to take up the comprehensive measure that the Senate passed in June.
But as far as Ms. Martínez and many other immigrants are concerned, one of House Republicans’ sharpest disagreements with the Senate and the White House, over a path to citizenship for those here illegally, should not be that hard to resolve.
“For many undocumented people, citizenship is not a priority,” said Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, a network of immigrant organizations that includes many foreigners here without papers. “What they really care about is a solution that allows them to overcome their greatest vulnerabilities.”
The Senate bill includes a 13-year pathway for 11.7 million illegal immigrants that ends with a chance to naturalize. President Obama and other supporters of that measure insist that any alternative would create a disenfranchised underclass. Many House Republicans reject the Senate path as rewarding immigrants who broke the law. But a growing number of Republicans say they remain ready to work on immigration and could consider legalization, if it did not involve any direct route to citizenship.
For foreigners like Ms. Martínez — those who cannot get a driver’s license in most states and live with gnawing worry about being fired or deported — that would be enough. They aspire to become Americans, they said in phone interviews, but would settle for less if they could work and drive legally, and visit relatives outside the country.
Another woman in Houston, Elena Sandoval, described a painful moment when her father died in El Salvador and she could not attend his funeral knowing she would not get back into the United States. Ms. Sandoval, 48, a house cleaner, sends money home for her three children.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is to leave your family,” Ms. Sandoval said with a sigh. “If only I could have permission to move about freely,” she added. “Citizenship would just be a blessing we would pray for.”
Most groups working for immigrant rights vehemently oppose any legislation that would deny millions of people the opportunity for full equality.
“We either have a path to citizenship or a path to hell,” said María Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “To codify a person who lives in this country but will never have an opportunity for citizenship creates a second class. It seems completely un-American.”
Advocates say the Senate’s path — which requires illegal immigrants to pay fines and back taxes, study English, pass criminal checks and wait in line behind foreigners who applied legally — is sufficiently long and arduous. This month there have been rallies and protests nationwide and a fast on the National Mall to pressure the House to vote on a bill with citizenship.
But among immigrants there is no consensus. In South Florida, there were anguished discussions over café con leche and empanadas among members of Dreamers’ Moms, a group of mothers of young immigrants who have joined the movement.
“Citizenship is fundamental,” insists Yaquelín López, 46, a Bolivian who has been in the United States illegally for a decade. “Otherwise we will be 11 million people left in limbo.”
Marcela Espinal agrees.
“We have been working hard for our families and paying taxes all these years and we never lived off the government,” said Ms. Espinal, 35, a Honduran employed for more than a decade in construction. “Why shouldn’t we be able to vote someday?”
Two of Ms. Espinal’s three children are already Americans, because they were born here. She wants the security of citizenship, she said, after her husband, also from Honduras, escaped deportation this year only when immigrant groups rallied to free him.
However, a mother from Argentina, Alejandra Saucedo, 43, contends that the citizenship strategy could backfire.
“I think if we stick with the message of citizenship or nothing,” Ms. Saucedo said, “we could end up with nothing.”
In the House, several dozen conservatives reject any legalization, calling it amnesty for outlaws. But Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and other House leaders continue to urge Republicans to show they can fix an immigration system that is broken. Many Republicans say legalization, along with tough border and workplace enforcement, is the only practical way to deal with unauthorized immigrants who have settled in the country.
Mr. Boehner said the House would take up the issues next year in smaller bills framed by principles being devised by the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia. Mr. Good-latte has said that he wants to “find the appropriate legal status for unlawful immigrants,” but that he would not grant them any special path to becoming Americans. Mr. Obama on Tuesday told The Wall Street Journal, “If they want to chop that thing up into five pies, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like.”
Republicans point to low rates of naturalization among some legal immigrants — 36 percent among Mexicans who are eligible, according to the Pew Research Center — to say that citizenship is not vital. Some Republicans also worry that by offering citizenship, they could create millions of future Democratic voters.
Some Republicans are trying to devise proposals their caucus could accept. Mr. Goodlatte and the majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor, also of Virginia, are working on a bill with a path to citizenship limited to young immigrants here illegally.
Representative Darrell Issa of California, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he had been writing a hybrid bill that would give illegal immigrants a six-year provisional status, allowing those with family ties here to naturalize eventually through regular channels, and creating a long-term guest worker program for others.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida is proposing earned citizenship for a broader group. And three Republicans have signed on to a bill by House Democrats with a pathway mirroring the Senate’s.
Speaking on Tuesday to Hispanic evangelicals in Washington, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who is an ardent defender of a broad overhaul, urged supporters to be ready to compromise and accept legalization only for some immigrants to protect them from deportation.
Among Latinos, a growing electorate that both parties want to court, sentiment for a path to citizenship is strong. In a recent national survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 67 percent of Latinos said immigrants here illegally should be allowed to become citizens if they met certain requirements, while 17 percent said they should only become legal residents.
In Florida, Ms. Saucedo says she fears a wave of deportations if Congress passes no bill at all. She knows what relief feels like, because after living illegally in Florida for many years, she became a legal resident through marriage to an American.
“Let them approve legalization,” Ms. Saucedo said. “After that, we will keep fighting until we reach our dream of being Americans with a vote.”