CHICAGO -- Word on the street is that immigration reform is dead -- again. But trust me, the word is premature. The issue is bound to stay on life support for some time.

So despite the current wave of "Obamacare killed immigration reform" eulogies, let's drill down into what a plan that would offer legalization but not a special path to citizenship might look like, should a compromise miraculously occur.

According to Peter F. Assad of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and an adjunct professor at American University's law school, the reform bill that passed the Senate offered only a special pathway to legal residency.

Indeed, the Senate's bill laid out a 10-year wait for a chance at obtaining permanent legal residency, which is much different from being in the country legally. And should a permanent legal resident seek citizenship, the final hurdles include another three-year wait, at minimum $2,000 in fines, several hundred more dollars in fees and taxes, demonstrated fluency in English, a clean background check, meeting a "good character" standard and proof of having lived and worked continuously in the United States during the 13 years.


Advertisement

So what are we really talking about when considering a House Republican plan that would offer legalization only? For starters, let's look at the sticky questions of how unauthorized immigrants would be able to move from a legal status to the permanent legal residency currently required before applying for naturalization. Even the present state of the system, in which legal residency is earned through family or employment ties, is the big, unspoken question mark.

"The bottom line is that a 'regular pathway to citizenship' is a fiction unless the legalization program creates an achievable and clear pathway by eliminating the three-, 10-year and permanent bars to citizenship," Assad said, referring to the current rules stating that those who have accumulated 180 days or more of unlawful presence after April 1, 1997, must wait outside the United States for three or 10 years, depending on how long they lived here without permission. Some are barred forever. There are currently waivers for "extreme hardship," and those could certainly come into play. But they could also be a messy minefield that creates yet more bottlenecks.

Discussion on waiving these bars will surely send some conservatives into a tizzy about bending rules that require punitive consequences for initial and repeated violations of existing immigration laws. But compromise means that no one leaves the bargaining table with all of what they want, so let's not stop there. The other tricky issue is increasing the annual number of green cards allotted.

"Demand for green cards already exceeds the annual limit of green cards per year, creating a wait of years and in some cases, decades," Assad said.

Assad worries that the finely tuned message of groups that oppose more immigration, legal or otherwise, will shut down dialogue on this very point.

Writing on National Review Online, Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, criticized the Republican framework's nod to compromise. " 'Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers,' " to which Krikorian countered, "Actually they need to reflect the needs of the American people, including the 20 million-plus looking for full-time work."

The real problem with the two messy sub issues outlined above is that diligent consideration of both illegal and legal immigration is required to finally reform the immigration system. But this seems beyond Washington's grasp these days.

"Right now the conversation is happening at the petty political sound bite-level that doesn't get into boring nuances -- but the boring nuances are important," Assad told me.

And they're definitely not "boring" to those who will get to stay, will be made to go or are already in the interminable "line" you get assigned to when you do things the so-called "right way." Their worries can't die quickly enough.

Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.