Immigration Expert Peter Skerry: What Jeb Bush Gets Wrong (and Right)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has turned heads this week for his proposal that immigration reform not include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In his new book written with Clint Bolick, Immigration Wars, Bush writes of illegal immigrants: "those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship." Bush suggests that the government should offer permanent legal residency instead of citizenship.

Those words from were bound to attract criticism at a time when both President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are working toward a comprehensive immigration reform package that would include a path to citizenship. After the initial controversy provoked by the revelation of the stance he takes in his book, Bush has scrambled to clarify and walk back his proposal for permanent non-citizen legal status.

To get a sense of the merits of the proposal in Bush’s book, I spoke with Boston College political scientist and Brookings scholar Peter Skerry, who has written about the strengths of offering permanent non-legal residency to illegal immigrants in National Affairs and other publications.

Skerry addressed the weaknesses of Bush’s suggestion, the risks of setting up an “obstacle course to citizenship,” the attitudes of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and more. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows:

What were your thoughts on the idea Jeb Bush has sketched out in his book to include a system of permanent legal residency, as opposed to a path to full citizenship, for resolving the status of illegal immigrants?

I’m well-disposed toward it. I was just looking at his book, and noticed that there are several conditions that Gov. Bush places on individuals who want to apply for this permanent legal resident status. One of the things I have argued is that we ought to impose as few conditions as possible, because I feel that the virtue of this approach – that is, of granting people who are here illegally permanent legal residency but not citizenship – is its simplicity and straightforwardness

And that’s for two different reasons. One is that granting permanent legal residency without citizenship sends a very clear, upfront signal to the American public that there’s a penalty being imposed here, and it’s not left to the arcane administrative procedures of various agencies which are going to impose fines and make applicants go through several programs – in whose effectiveness the American public does not have much confidence. So that’s one virtue of what I have proposed: that it’s a straightforward, upfront penalty, without a lot of bells and whistles.

But on the other side of the ledger, I think that at least my approach, which is different from what Gov. Bush proposed in his book, also has advantages for those individuals living here illegally. My evaluation of their situation, based on many years of looking at immigrant communities, is that these are people who are caught in-between – not simply in their legal status, but in that they’re not quite sure they want to remain here, even if they’ve been here for 10-15 years or more. They’re caught in a kind of ambivalence and indecision, which may be hard for the rest of us to understand, but it’s really an important aspect of their situation. So the straightforwardness of my approach – of saying, you step forward and we’ll make you a permanent legal resident – I think is a help to such individuals, compared to what is really being proposed by the Gang of Eight and to some extent by Gov. Bush in his initial proposal, which is a complicated series of hoops that have to be jumped through. I think that the more complicated such requirements get, on the one hand, the American public ironically loses confidence in the process. And on the other hand, the more complications and stipulations, the less likely it is that the undocumented will follow through and jump through all those hoops. And the more they remain in a state of indecision and ambivalence.

I believe this is one reason so many of the undocumented didn’t’ become citizens when they had the chance under the 1986 IRCA law. So I think there’s a great virtue in simplicity here. While I applaud Gov. Bush’s initial foray into this, his version has all these different stipulations that go in the wrong direction.

Part of the reason Gov. Bush’s statements in his book have been so controversial is that this aspect of his plan replaces the path to citizenship. I think many people consider it a question of justice, and worry that Bush’s proposal and yours could deny immigrants what’s right, and create a kind of “second-class citizenship.” Are those concerns? And what might be the advantages of such a system?

I think the advantages are what I’ve just tried to suggest. Let me summarize that quickly and then I’ll try to answer your question.


I think the advantages of granting people permanent legal status but not citizenship is that it sends a clear signal to the American public that there’s a penalty for what the undocumented have done. And whatever one feels about it personally, I think it’s evident that the American public wants some sort of recognition that the undocumented should somehow make amends for living here illegally. So I think this path to permanent non-citizenship demonstrates this to the American public.

At the same time, this approach quickly alters the ambiguity in which the undocumented live their lives. Ironically, the more we devise not a path to citizenship but an obstacle course to citizenship with all variety of requirements that have to implemented – which is really what the Gang of Eight are proposing – the less confidence the public has in such efforts and the more likely the undocumented will get waylaid and never attain citizenship. So again, the virtue here of granting illegal immigrants permanent non-citizenship is a simple, straightforward outcome that’s delivered up-front at the beginning of a process, not 10 or 15 years later.

And let me make another point about the two proposals that are now floating around -- the Gang of Eight’s proposal and what Gov. Bush offered in his book before he started backpedaling in the past couple of days. I’m not sure that members of Congress really see much difference between these two. In fact I noticed in the Wall Street Journal today that Congressman Raul Labrador basically said that he and his colleagues see these two proposals as more or less the same thing.

What I believe the congressman is suggesting is that both proposals are going to lead to the same effective outcome for most undocumented – that is, legal residency but probably not citizenship. In other words, I believe that lawmakers understand that no matter what version they enact – the Gang of Eight’s “path to citizenship” or some form of permanent legal status without citizenship, most undocumented will never become citizens.

In this sense, the “path to citizenship” is an illusory promise, or a likely unattained goal, that will leave many in a kind of limbo of indecision and unmet bureaucratic requirements. Either that, or all those requirements will not be enforced rigorously and will in effect be a sham, in which case the outrage of Americans will be rekindled anew. Again, this is why I emphasize the virtues of the up-front simplicity and straight-forwardness of my approach.

One reason I believe this is our experience with the 1986 IRCA amnesty. I’m not saying this current effort is an amnesty, but it is similar in the sense that we opened the gates up to 2.7 million people, who were eligible first to become permanent legal residents – green card holders – and then to become citizens. It’s rather striking that today, almost 25 years later, barely 40 percent of all those 2.7 million people have gone on to become citizens. Sixty percent chose to remain as green card holders. I think that has to tell you something about how such individuals see the world, what they’re willing to settle for, and their own intentions about how fervently they want to become U.S. citizens. It seems to me the evidence indicates that most people who are here illegally aren’t so focused on citizenship.

Sounds like you’re suggesting that both Jeb Bush and the Gang of Eight lack an understanding of the sort of the organizational difficulties of reform and also the attitudes of immigrants who are here illegally in the U.S. right now how they really are.

I’d like to refine that a little bit. I’d say I’m 70 percent in agreement with what you just said.

I think what we have here is elected officials in Washington on both sides of the aisle who are used to delegating complicated tasks built into the legislation they pass to various kinds of administrative agencies and programs. And that’s what they’re doing here. They’re setting up all sorts of requirements and programs that will be administered by some divisions, presumably, of Homeland Security. These legislators – at least in this context – seem unmindful of the fact that the public doesn’t have much confidence in the federal bureaucracy. Ironically, conservative legislators, who typically disdain and criticize government bureaucracy, are in this instance at least also turning to bureaucrats to implement complicated requirements imposed on the undocumented. So on both sides of the aisle, legislators are doing what they’re used to doing.

At the same time, as you suggest, these legislators are not terribly mindful of the social realities that have brought large numbers of undocumented here and that they continue to characterize their lives, in terms of their own indecision and ambivalence about whether they’re going to remain in America or go back home, much less become citizens. I think that’s a perspective that policymakers generally haven’t paid much attention to, in great part because we all get caught up in the rhetoric of immigration -- the rhetoric enveloping the Statue of Liberty and emanating from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Yet it has never been so clear that these are the reasons why most people come here. Migrants often come here, even 100 years ago, not planning to stay, but instead planning to work hard, save a lot of money and then go home. Today that certainly tends to be the mindset of people who come here illegally, especially from Mexico, and that’s a huge proportion of the 11 million illegals who are here, perhaps as many as 60 percent. I think policymakers and elected officials don’t pay much attention to this reality -- either because they’re not aware of it or because it cuts against our ideology as “a nation of immigrants”; that most people in the world want to come here and become U.S. citizens. Yet it’s just not that clear; it’s much more of a mixed pattern.

I want to pick up on something Jeb Bush mentioned, that was sort of walking back what he said in his book. He said he could think of a path to citizenship that he’d approve of if it included measures to make sure the U.S. didn’t incentivize future illegal immigration, whether it be from Mexico, Latin America – he didn’t specify. Do you think that’s a relevant concern, disincentivizing future immigrants, at this stage in 2013?

Yes it’s a really important concern, because whatever kind of deal we cut for the 11 million undocumented right now, it’s going to send signals to people who are contemplating coming here in the near and distant future. If there aren’t some serious penalties imposed on those who have come here illegally and if we don’t have some serious enforcement mechanisms, not just at the border but at the workplace, then we aren’t really dealing with the problem, we’re just putting a Band-Aid on it, and we’re going to be back here in 5-10 years talking about several million more undocumented. So yes, I think that’s an important way of framing the issue, and I think Gov. Bush is entirely right to frame it that way. I don’t know exactly what he’s pointing to to achieve that goal. And lots of the proposals I’ve heard, including the proposal from the Gang of Eight, do not persuade me they are very serious about sending the right signal to subsequent potential illegal immigrants. But certainly upfront, I think for Bush to raise that concern is important and entirely valid.




Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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