Who is an American? Traditionally, we look to citizenship to answer that question, but the issue is more complicated than legal labels. Even President Donald Trump seems to recognize this in his periodic openness to negotiating comprehensive immigration reform.
Among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States today, 60 percent have lived here for a decade or more. Many have built deep family and community ties, through U.S.-citizen spouses, children, jobs, homes and mortgages. They have become Americans in all but legal status.
Current law rarely grants long-term immigrants the right to stay, sentencing them to a life of uncertainty without parole. Any unlucky traffic stop or encounter with law-enforcement officials can lead to deportation with no right of return. Such a punishment is in many ways worse than a prison sentence, which at least gives people who break the law a chance to return to their former life.
Trump’s first year in office has only aggravated the problem. Arrests of immigrants in the interior of the country – which does not include those at the border – are up 43 percent. One might try to justify this harsh treatment by noting that these immigrants broke the law when they entered or stayed in the country without proper papers. But must these consequences hang over an immigrant’s head forever?
They don’t under criminal law. Except for the most heinous crimes, statutes of limitation require the government either to prosecute an offender within a certain period – five years for most federal crimes – or to drop the matter. Civil suits, such as for tort or breach of contract, must similarly be brought within a fixed period. We ordinarily do not countenance holding people accountable for misdeeds committed a decade or more ago, in part out of recognition that people should be able to move on with their lives despite what they have done in the past.
If we accept a time limit for holding even criminals accountable, why not for deporting immigrants? Would ending this uncertainty after a specified period mean rewarding people for breaking the law? No, it would mean recognizing that enforcing the law is not the only interest at stake and that long-term residents also have legitimate interests in sustaining the lives they have built. That would not necessarily mean granting citizenship but would require at least a reasonable path to legal status.
Not everyone would qualify. Congress would have to determine how long an immigrant must have lived in the U.S. to be eligible. Some people who have committed serious crimes could be presumptively excluded, although we should avoid the tendency of current law to treat petty crime as grounds for deportation.
Granting legal status to long-term immigrants would also improve the lives of many U.S. citizens, especially the spouses and children of those who came to the United States illegally. We owe some respect to these families before deporting a mother or husband. Moreover, like any of us, immigrants witness crimes. They are likely to step forward to provide testimony only if they are safe from deportation. Entire sectors of the economy – such as agriculture, construction, landscape and domestic work – depend on immigrants who are willing to do jobs that ordinary Americans will not. And legal status would make people less vulnerable to economic exploitation, reducing downward pressure on wages.
As we contemplate the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform, it is time to recognize that at some point, respecting the lives that immigrants have built in the U.S. becomes more important than enforcing immigration law. As a nation of immigrants, that is the least we owe this generation’s long-term immigrants.
Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.