The predictable furor over President Obama’s executive order offering relief to approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants has obscured the fact that his initiative is much bolder in form than in content. Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to offer less than what immigrant advocates have for years been insisting is an absolute necessity: full citizenship.
If Obama’s initiative should prove to be the first step on “the path to citizenship” for these undocumented, it is a hobbled and halting one, and the path long and tortuous. It is difficult to believe that this or any Congress now on the horizon will be willing to affirm Obama’s initiative. Neither is it likely, though perhaps less easy to predict, that Congress will risk the political consequences of rescinding it.
It is even more difficult to imagine a president in the foreseeable future unilaterally granting this population any more than Obama has, apart from perhaps extending the order’s three-year limit. Similarly, the odds are against any future chief executive—especially a Republican—terminating Obama’s program. So rather than direct these 5 million individuals down a path to citizenship, Obama has almost certainly consigned them to legal limbo.
Not surprisingly, immigrant advocates have already started pushing back and demanding more. What is surprising is that the undocumented do not seem to share the same sense of urgency. On the contrary, most seem willing to settle for much less than full citizenship—in particular, for legal status that allows them to live here without fear of deportation and to travel back and forth to their country of origin to visit family, which Obama’s order will allow them to do. In other words, the undocumented are not as concerned with attaining citizenship as their advocates have long and strenuously argued.
There is abundant evidence to support this assertion. First, there are ethnographic studies of undocumented immigrants from Ireland, Guatemala, and Mexico, revealing their intentions to return home and their consequent indifference to, or at least ambivalence about, any permanent tie with the United States.
Second, there are the results of the amnesty granted to nearly 2.7 million illegal immigrants by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. According to data published by the Department of Homeland Security, as of 2009 (nearly a quarter-century after the IRCA amnesty program began), barely 41 percent had exercised the option to become U.S. citizens. The other three-fifths remain legal permanent residents.
A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center reinforces this point by scrutinizing naturalization rates for legal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Drawing on Current Population Survey data, Pew reports that, as of 2011, only 36 percent of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico eligible to become U.S. citizens had taken that step. The naturalization rate for legal immigrants from Central America was somewhat higher—44 percent. By contrast, the rate for all legal immigrants, regardless of country of origin, was much higher—61 percent.
Drawing an inference from these data about legal immigrants and the implications for the controversy over illegal immigrants (of whom about three-fifths come from Mexico), Pew offers this understated but striking conclusion: “The Center’s analysis of current naturalization rates among Mexican legal immigrants suggests that creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally does not mean all would pursue that option.”
There are several factors to consider in explaining these numbers, not the least of which is the proximity of the immigrants’ country of origin to the United States. Also relevant is the evidence from numerous studies highlighting that illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America, typically arrive here as “target earners” who have specific earnings goals and do not intend to settle here permanently. To meet their goals, they maximize income by working long hours and minimize expenses by living in Spartan, often substandard conditions.
Granted, such migrants put down roots. Their goals shift, and target earners typically end up remaining, though the notion of one day returning “home” often lingers for many years. Activist lawyer Jennifer Gordon, who sought unsuccessfully to organize a union of undocumented Central American day laborers in suburban Long Island, has aptly characterized such individuals as “settlers in fact but sojourners in attitude.” No wonder that securing U.S. citizenship is not a priority for many such immigrants.