Immigration Fix? Tough, So Consider CitizenCorps

Members of immigration rights organizations, including Casa in Action and Maryland Dream Act, demonstrate in front of the White House as they call on President Barack Obama to fulfill his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform, in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.    (National Journal)

Some Republicans may want a quick fix to the GOP's deepening political alienation from Hispanic voters. There are no quick fixes.

The slide in GOP identification and support among Hispanic voters is not fatal. Republicans can survive as a House majority party for a few more cycles without changing at all on immigration — or any other issue, for that matter. But it cannot seriously compete for the White House or many seats it doesn't currently possess in the Senate without a renewed effort to listen to, communicate with, and understand the aspirations — economic and cultural — of Hispanic voters.

Immigration is part of that equation. But a "solution" on immigration reform won't solve the GOP's image deficit with Hispanics. Immigration is a prism through which other GOP policies are viewed. For many Hispanics, the party's bristling hostility toward any practical solution to the dilemma of 12-14 million undocumented workers turns every other policy and political conversation into white noise. Very white noise.

And yet, Republicans know they cannot simply walk away from their law-and-order position on the underlying crime of undocumented labor. The GOP has had numerous opportunities to dial back its "What part of breaking the law don't you understand?" rhetoric. It hasn't, and it now owns it — and the tens of millions of votes that have followed that zero-tolerance idea to a historic presidential defeat.

The GOP base wants an immigration solution rooted in the rule of law. But it's also appropriately squeamish about the thought — let alone the reality — of mass deportations. And let's acknowledge that "self-deportation" has the same policy legitimacy as wage and price controls.

Democrats also know that the question of legalizing undocumented workers is fraught with practical and political peril. "Amnesty" remains a volatile word, and the mechanics of providing a "path to citizenship" are far more difficult than most of the airy postelection banter about reform would lead one to believe.

The practical questions are many: Who qualifies for legal status? How long must they wait? Can they have any criminal blemish on their record? Would they pay a fine, and, if so, how much? Would they have to return to their country of origin? Does "going to the back of the line" behind immigrants seeking legal admission mean they could wait 10 years or more? What is their tax status and eligibility for federal benefits once they are being processed and brought "out of the shadows?"

These are just a few of the questions. I'm sure there are others I haven't even considered that may be just as difficult. Some may be more difficult.

But I have long thought there was a partial solution to the thorny questions surrounding a "path to citizenship."

In my mind, it's called CitizenCorps.

The idea is to use the existing 50-state bureaucracy of AmeriCorps to link undocumented workers with community-service projects where they live — to use community service as a means of accelerating the legalization process. Undocumented residents who volunteer can earn residency/citizenship credits that could shorten their wait for a green card and, ultimately, citizenship.

This would address three very big needs:

1. It would take the sting of criminality out of the equation. Undocumented workers would not be forced to volunteer, but if they did, they could visibly and importantly serve their community, adding value and addressing localized needs.

2. It would eliminate the ugly debate over fines. Most Americans consider residency and citizenship nearly priceless and necessarily recoil at the idea of putting a federal price tag on them.

3. Each community could witness the volunteer work undocumented residents perform. This would elevate their sense of attachment to and appreciation of the undocumented population and vice versa.

This form of volunteerism would be different than the work-for-stipend AmeriCorps model, and that would keep costs down. AmeriCorps knows the projects that need to be done and could find a ready supply of volunteers under a CitizenCorps model. The projects could be large-scale — refurbishing schools, sprucing up low-income housing, and clearing parks and streams of garbage — to small-bore tasks of mentoring, teaching English, or logging hours at after-school programs.

Under this model, a CitizenCorps identification card could be the first rung on a ladder of legal residency and citizenship. With smartphone technology and a CitizenCorps identification number, volunteer hours could be logged easily, and the process of moving through the legal immigration process transparent and rewarding.

AmeriCorps's budget is just over $1 billion. The House twice tried and failed to kill it after the 2010 elections. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have all made peace with AmeriCorps. It's here to stay.

Forty workers from AmeriCorps's National Civilian Community Corps recently flew out from their homes in Washington state, Minnesota, and Montana to clear debris after Hurricane Sandy — part of the 1,000-strong AmeriCorps contingent there. These 40 expected to use chain saws and heavy tools on the New Yorkand New Jersey shoreline. Instead, The New York Times reported, they ended up running an emergency shelter in the cafeteria of Brooklyn Technical High School for seniors from Coney Island and Rockaway who had sometimes severe mobility and memory issues. AmeriCorps workers also descended onto Joplin, Mo., after a tornado obliterated half the town. One worker stayed so long, she bought a house.

AmeriCorps is the nation's conduit to community service. It's up and running across the land. Undocumented workers need a means by which to obtain legal residency and, if possible, citizenship. Congress and President Obama need a means to solve the transition from undocumented and illegal to resident and citizen.

CitizenCorps just might be a way.

This article orginally appeared in print as CitizenCorps

This article appeared in the Wednesday, November 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.