The idea of granting illegal immigrants a form of legal status — but without the possibility of citizenship — has the backing of two Republican U.S. Senate candidates in Nebraska.
Sid Dinsdale and Bart McLeay both said it would be a good compromise toward ending the nation's long-standing dilemma over what to do with an estimated 11 million people living in this country illegally.
The idea is to allow them to legally work and pay taxes in this country, without giving them the right to vote or access certain federal benefits.
“I don't want people to continue to live underground. I want to bring them out of the shadows and let them be a part of our communities,” said McLeay, an Omaha attorney.
“I say, give them some kind of work status, while they learn English and pay taxes,” said Dinsdale, whose family owns the Nebraska-based Pinnacle Bank.
For years, the nation has been embroiled in a debate over immigration, including the key political question of what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
Some argue that there is no feasible way to deport so many people and instead want to move them toward becoming tax-paying citizens. Others believe that offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship would be granting amnesty to criminals.
A number of Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., think that providing a form of legal status other than citizenship could be a palatable compromise.
That makes sense to Dinsdale and McLeay, who are among four major Republican candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the May 13 primary. The other two contenders — Ben Sasse and Shane Osborn — declined to discuss the idea of providing a pathway to legal status until the nation's borders are firmly secured and the flow of new illegal immigration has stopped.
“It's premature. I think the conversation about securing the borders should happen first,” said Sasse, who is president of Midland University in Fremont.
“You can't address that issue until the borders are closed first,” said Osborn, who served a single term as Nebraska state treasurer.
The lone Democrat in the race — David Domina of Omaha — was the only Nebraska U.S. Senate candidate who wholeheartedly backed citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Domina said that America is a nation of immigrants and that it is time to welcome the newest arrivals.
“I know many people, especially in the ag community, who do hard and honorable work, who support families and contribute to their community and (who) are afraid for their lives, because they don't have citizenship,” said Domina.
In recent weeks, the drumbeat for providing a pathway to legal status has grown in Washington, D.C., Johanns said.
He said House Republicans are putting together a comprehensive immigration proposal that could include the idea — as long as enough GOP lawmakers support it.
The idea could be unveiled as early as this week, along with Republican proposals to expand the nation's guest-worker program and provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
The proposed new form of legal status would be a first for the nation and would effectively create a two-tier system of American workers: citizens and non-citizens.
Johanns said that two-tier system would be only for a generation, since the children of those non-citizens — if born in the United States — automatically would be full citizens. He also said nothing would prohibit Congress from granting citizenship in the future.
“The question arises: Does the U.S. see this group of people differently five years from now? Ten years from now?” Johanns said during a recent interview with The World-Herald's editorial board.
The proposed pathway to legal status would be a good compromise, McLeay said, although the details of how it would work have yet to be determined. For example, McLeay said, illegal immigrants should be forced to pay some kind of fine or penalty before they are given legal status. Exactly what that fine or penalty should be, McLeay does not know.
“We need to bring this to a conclusion and have people take responsibility and accountability for their offense,” McLeay said.
Dinsdale also portrayed the proposal as a good way to end the long-running debate over illegal immigration.
“We can't continue as we are, because they're in the shadows, and we have to get that corrected,” said Dinsdale.
Both Osborn and Sasse countered that without securing the borders first, the nation risks repeating the same mistake it made in 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration package that eventually granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, including about 1 million farm workers.
“We did it without securing the borders, and what we saw was an increase in illegal immigration,” Osborn said.
Sasse also argued that the federal government appears to lack the will to secure the border.
“This isn't rocket science,” he said. “There are other countries around the world that do succeed in securing their borders.”
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