What Does 'Pathway to Citizenship' Mean in Immigration Reform?

Obama, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush have different views on citizenship.

ByABC News
March 19, 2013, 2:44 PM

March 19, 2013— -- The immigration reform debate over the past few months has led to various interpretations of what constitutees a pathway to citizenship, especially for undocumented immigrants living in the country now.

See Also: Gutiérrez: GOP and Dems Agree on Path to Citizenship

Rand Paul says one thing, President Obama says another and Donald Trump, respected arbiter of public opinion that he is, says something else altogether.

So what do people mean when they say "path to citizenship"?

Here are a few different ideas:

1. The Restrictionist

Arch conservatives have long argued that a path to citizenship already exists, and that we don't need to revise the immigration system in this respect.

For some immigrants, that's technically true: they could return to their home country and apply for a visa. But it's kind of like saying you can travel from L.A. to New York without a car. It's possible, but it's going to take a lot longer than most people believe is reasonable.

If you've entered the U.S. without inspection (by illegally crossing the border, for example), you may be subject to a three- or 10-year bar, meaning you would need to return to your home country and wait at least that long until you could begin applying for a visa to re-enter the U.S.

Waiting out the 10-year bar doesn't guarantee a visa, either. Even for people with family members in the country -- a viable pathway to legal status -- visa waits can be decades. So you could potentially be talking about a "pathway" that takes as long as 30 to 35 years. For people who don't qualify for existing visa categories (there are few visas for lesser-skilled workers who want to stay in the U.S. long-term, for example), there might be no pathway at all.

2. President Obama

Last month, a draft of the president's immigration plan leaked to the media, giving us an idea of what the commander-in-chief considers a reasonable pathway to citizenship. The president proposed creating a probationary immigration status that the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants could apply for following the passage of a bill.

You could consider this the first prong in his path to citizenship. Immigrants will be forced to meet certain qualifications -- pay a fine, pass a background check, learn English -- and would then be awarded a status that allows them to live and work in the U.S. legally. The probationary status would last no more than eight years under Obama's plan. After that, immigrants will be able to apply for a green card. Under current law, anyone who is granted a green card can apply for citizenship after waiting five years.

You could consider the special access to a green card the second prong of his pathway. The president's plan, more broadly explained in a January speech, also calls for clearing the existing backlog of visa applications in the legal immigration system. That's meant to ensure that undocumented immigrants using this special pathway would not jump ahead of those already waiting for visas.

A group in the Senate working on immigration reform is considering a similar plan to Obama, but the details have not yet been released by lawmakers.

3. Jeb Bush

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a popular name in discussions about future presidential candidates, did a great job last week of completely confusing everyone about his beliefs on citizenship. The skinny: Bush said one thing in a new book he was releasing, then another in interviews afterward. But for our purposes, let's look at what he said in the book.