So far, three separate immigration reform bills being drafted in Washington feature a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And the path in each is a long one.
President Obama backs a pathway that would take approximately 13 years to obtain citizenship. A Senate group working on an immigration bill reportedly came up with a path entailing a similar wait. And a bill being devised in the House would make undocumented immigrants wait for a minimum of 15 years, and a maximum that could potentially be decades longer, according to reports.
Immigrant rights groups generally think a pathway should be on the shorter end of this spectrum. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. To Avoid Creating an Underclass
One of the goals of any immigration reform bill will be to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. Some sort of temporary or probationary legal status is the first step in such a process, but if you leave people in that predicament for too long, you're creating a second-class citizenship.
"It's not in the best interests of anyone to have a sub-class," according to Laura Vazquez, the immigration legislative analyst at National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "That's exactly what we're trying to avoid by having immigration reform."
2. People Have Been Here for a Long Time Already
Judging by reports, an immigration bill will likely ask that undocumented immigrants endure a waiting period of eight to 10 years before they are eligible to apply for a green card. But if a bill doesn't account for longevity in the U.S., that could mean people who have been living and working in the country for decades could still be subject to a long road to citizenship, according to Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America's Voice Education Fund.
"We're talking about parents, cherished workers, business and property owners, people with roots and ties here," Tramonte wrote in an email. "It makes little sense to force people to wait long periods of time before they can become official citizens of a country they already call home."
3. Family Strife
Nearly 9 million people in the U.S. live in "mixed-status families," in which some relatives have legal status and some don't, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. The problems of the family member waiting for citizenship can easily become the problem of the rest of the family.
For instance, if an immigration bill denies immigrants with probationary status access to federal entitlement programs and health care, that could result in a burden on the whole family. A decade without health coverage is a long time, and medical treatment is not cheap.
4. Fear of Shifting Political Winds
Remember Democrats celebrating over the passage of the health care bill? It didn't take long for Republican opponents to start attacking it with legal and legislative challenges.
Immigrants applying for any potential legalization program could have the same fear -- that one day, the program will be revoked or altered. A 10-year waiting period leaves plenty of time for opponents to come up with a way to attack the program, and that could discourage some people from applying at all.
The NCLR's Vazquez doesn't envision the path to citizenship changing after the bill is passed, however. "Once this agreement is reached and people are working their way through this process, I think that ultimately people would understand that it would be terribly unfair to change those rules," she said.