The immigration policy debate is not solely about the fate of immigrants, or of non-citizens. The outcome of these debates and any measures enacted under the guise of immigration reform will affect United States citizens. In the contemporary United States, any policy that has negative implications for immigrants inevitably also will have negative consequences for citizens. This is because, in many ways, there is not a clear boundary between non-citizens and citizens nor between immigrants and citizens.
Some US citizens are immigrants, and some non-citizens will become citizens. In addition, most non-citizens have citizen family members. As Fix and Zimmerman point out, fully:
“85 percent of immigrant families (i.e. those with at least one non-citizen parent) are mixed status families. The meaning of this is clear: most policies that advantage or disadvantage non-citizens are likely to have broad spillover effects on the citizen children who live in the great majority of immigrant families” (emphasis in original).
In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with handling the transition of the foreign-born either into citizenship or into leaving this country. As indicated on the DHS official website, the mission of the DHS is as follows:
We will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation. We will ensure safe and secure borders, welcome lawful immigrants and visitors, and promote the free-flow of commerce.
The primary mission of the DHS is to protect citizens from terrorist attacks. This projection involves protecting the borders, and enforcing laws in the interior, but at the same time, welcoming lawful immigrants and visitors and international commerce. For the DHS, lawful immigrants are potential citizens, whereas unlawful immigrants are unwelcome. The DHS is charged both with enabling immigrants to become citizens and ensuring that those who are not eligible for citizenship are appropriately regulated.
Although the DHS is clear on its intent to regulate non-citizens and to protect citizens, it is not possible to divide the US into two discrete parts – citizens versus non-citizens. It is perhaps more useful to draw a divide between the foreign-born who are eligible for citizenship and those who are not. The foreign-born who are eligible for citizenship include legal permanent residents who have been in the US for several years, and have not violated US laws. Those who are not eligible for citizenship include most undocumented migrants, tourists, students, refugees, and non-citizen who have violated certain US laws.
Non-citizens who are convicted of a wide range of legal violations not only are ineligible for citizenship, but also face deportation. The legal violations that render non-citizens deportable include violent crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery. However, they also include minor crimes such as crossing the border without inspection, shoplifting, resisting arrest, and tax evasion. A US citizen who commits similar crimes faces the appropriate charges, serves any time sentenced, and goes about his or her life. A non-US citizen who commits these crimes faces deportation to his or her country of birth. In this sense, the law is clear as to the different nature of punishment for citizens versus non-citizens. The impact, however, is often felt by citizens. When a non-citizen is deported, his or her family often suffers greatly.
People who are not US citizens and are thus subject to deportation often have US citizen family members. They also often live in communities with US citizens. Some may have been in the country for a few days, but others have settled here and have been here for decades. Their deportation can be a tragedy for those left behind. For this reason, the immigration policy debate cannot take a narrow look simply at migrants, but must also take into consideration the significant impact on citizens, as well as recognize that immigrants and citizens are not mutually exclusive categories, but often stages in a person’s migrant career.