On ‘legal status’ vs. ‘citizenship’

“The two terms may seem similar, but their difference is vast.”

A key part of the debate on immigration reform in the United States revolves around “legal status” vs. “citizenship,” writes Sally Steenland, director of the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

“The two terms may seem similar but their difference is vast,” explains Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist and teacher who explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere. “Providing legal status without a chance to earn citizenship would mean creating a permanent underclass of people who live in our communities, work and pay taxes while being denied certain basic rights.”

Steenland points out that if you’re not a citizen, you can’t vote; you’re not eligible for an array of federal programs, even though you contribute to them; and you’re barred from a range of jobs, including those in the military.

There are moral and philosophical benefits of citizenship: namely, the affirmation of the United States’ core values as a nation.

“Besides being unfair, denying millions of people the right to citizenship is socially and politically disruptive,” Steenland declares. “It is important for each of us to have skin in the game: to know that our investment in this country brings real rewards.”

That is what providing a path to earned citizenship does, according to Steenland. “It offers hope to go along with having skin in the game,” she says

Steenland describes how the process would work: Undocumented immigrants would be required to undergo a series of tasks, including paying back taxes, learning English, passing background checks, and getting in line behind those who have legally applied for permanent residency.

“As undocumented immigrants do their part, Congress needs to clear the backlog and fix the process so immigrants aren’t forced to wait decades before they can become full American citizens,” Steenland stresses.

The practical benefits of citizenship are clear, according to Steeland. “We will have stronger and more vibrant communities, increased family security, and expanded political engagement,” she predicts.

The economic benefits are also clear: She cites a study done by the University of Southern California that found naturalized citizens earn 8% to 11% more money after they become citizens. “If even half of our eligible immigrants became citizens,” Steenland says, “it would add between $21 billion and $45 billion to our economy over the next five years.”

In addition to these tangible benefits, Steenland emphasizes that there are moral and philosophical benefits of citizenship: namely, the affirmation of the United States’ core values as a nation. “The current immigration debate raises the question of whether the words on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the poor and tired are still true,” she says, “or whether we have closed our doors and forgotten the promise of opportunity and equality that marks our national character.”

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from “Faith in Values: Lessons from Our Past Should Light the Path of Immigration Reform,” Center for American Progress, Feb. 13.