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Mr. President, an idea on immigration

By Lanae Erickson, Special to CNN
updated 4:52 PM EST, Tue January 24, 2012
Mexican immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra, center with infant, talks about immigrant rights in Colorado last summer..
Mexican immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra, center with infant, talks about immigrant rights in Colorado last summer..
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lanae Erickson: Immigration reform likely to come up at SOTU address, get cool reception
  • Can reform be salvaged, she asks? Most agree it's needed but differ on approach
  • Her idea: Blend DREAM Act for young, offer legalization, not citizenship to older people
  • Erickson: This holds kids blameless, but maintains principle: Citizenship has value

Editor's note: Lanae Erickson is the deputy director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

(CNN) -- Count on it. President Obama will devote three sentences to immigration reform in the State of the Union.

Two dozen lawmakers will jump to their feet and applaud. One-third of the audience will give an obligatory clap. The rest will sit silently, stifling a yawn.

Five years ago, comprehensive immigration reform legislation seemed possible and deeply bipartisan. Now it seems as unlikely and distant as President Bush's mission to Mars. And as for bipartisan? In the last go around, a Republican president led the charge. Today, no serious GOP presidential aspirant has the guts to support reform—evidenced again last night as both front-runners promised in the Florida debate to veto even the initially-Republican authored DREAM Act, and Romney grasped for straws by suggesting "self-deportation."

Can immigration reform be saved? Although there is near unanimity that our immigration system is broken, negotiations around how to fix it deadlock as soon as discussions turn to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here. One side insists they should be deported as criminals; the other insists they should be allowed an earned pathway to citizenship. That's a wide gulf.

Lanae Erickson
Lanae Erickson

There's a third option that could unstick the debate. It is based on a simple, American principle: hold children blameless, but not adults.

Here is how it would work. To all who came to America as a minor, we would provide a "Permanent Legal Status - Minor" (PLS-M) visa, so long as they have not been convicted of a felony crime. The visa would protect holders from deportation, make them eligible for the same federal, state, and local government services as other legal permanent residents, and allow them to exit and enter the country freely.

PLS-M holders would not be eligible to vote or bring relatives into the country through family immigration. But the visa would provide a path to citizenship if its holder earns an associate or bachelor's degree or serves honorably in the military. This is DREAM Act Plus—ending the fear of deportation for all young illegal immigrants and providing an earned path to citizenship for those who make the effort.

For the second group—those who chose as adults to come to the United States (or stay here) illegally—citizenship is a bridge too far for many Americans. Deportation, however, is expensive, impractical, and inconsistent with American values. Under our plan, these adults could apply for an immediate conditional visa that provides protection from deportation as well as authorization to travel abroad and work in the country. At the end of, say, five years, if the immigrant had met the specified requirements and had not been convicted of any felonies, he or she would be eligible for a "Permanent Legal Status -- Adult" (PLS-A) visa.

Holders of a PLS-A visa could not be deported, would be eligible for the same public services as other legal permanent residents, and would be able to be employed, obtain a passport, and travel freely. But there would be no road to citizenship from there, and they could not bring family members from across the borders to live here. That's the price of breaking the law.

This solution has the potential to appeal to a broad swath of Americans—and ultimately their lawmakers—because it is rooted in two deep values we hold in our country: that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents, and that American citizenship is extremely precious and should not be given away. This approach would treat two distinct undocumented populations differently: those who were brought here as children would be immediately eligible for permanent legal residency with a pathway to citizenship; those who came here or overstayed their visas as adults could earn a path to legalization—but not citizenship. Importantly, none of the 11 million would ever have to fear a knock on the door or a routine traffic stop again.

This isn't the only piece of immigration reform, but it's the thorniest. Solving this would allow policymakers the space to come to common-sense agreements on many of the other issues involved in fixing our immigration system—including updating our legal immigration process to ensure that our country can be a magnet for global talent and creating an adequate workplace enforcement system.

And because it starts from a deep commitment to two mainstream American values—holding kids blameless but making adults accountable—it could be just the thing to end the impasse and provide a resolution for those currently left hanging by the endless can-kicking on reform.

There is a belief on the left that if President Obama is re-elected, immigration reform can happen next Congress. On the right, the belief is that if the President is defeated, an enforcement-only strategy will rid the nation of illegal immigrants. Both are wrong. New ideas are needed to break this stalemate.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lanae Erickson.

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