What is “Back of the Line” Citizenship?

September 1st, 2010 · 5 Comments

By Pablo Manriquez

Last month, after a quick, quiet, morning vote approving approximately $600,000,000.00 in border security funding, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office issued a statement calling for “comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders, cracks down on unscrupulous employers, and requires those here illegally to get right with the law, learn English, pay taxes, pass criminal background checks, and go to the back of the line.”

A week-or-so later, Congressman Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ) echoed Senator Reid: “We have to know who’s here. They have to register. They have to pay a fine. They have to have a background check. They have to be law-abiding, working; and I think those people get in the back of the line and are given the opportunity to earn legalization.”

Thus, what was once a “path to citizenship” for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States became, for a time, “earned citizenship.” Now, it seems the language of legalization has again shifted to a “back of the line” citizenship.

So, what is back of the line citizenship? No one I talk to seems to know (or at least, is willing to discuss) anything specific about the changing terms of extending citizenship to the estimated 12-14 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. However, the legalization side of comprehensive immigration reform indicates that legislative decisions may be underway regarding what “the line” for documentos might look like.

There is very little doubt that some form of citizenship program will be extended to the estimated 12-14 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. However, some things to keep in mind:

  • The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that “About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico.”
  • The Pew Hispanic Center also estimates that “a growing share of the children of unauthorized immigrant parents–73%–were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.” According to Pew’s analysis of the most-recent Census data, “An estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the offspring of unauthorized immigrants.”
  • While I find no current estimates regarding the professional skillsets of unauthorized immigrants, it seems reasonable to assume that a large majority of unauthorized immigrants — particularly those from Latin America — are unskilled laborers.

In short, the unauthorized immigrants currently living in the Unites States are overwhelmingly Latin American, are probably Spanish-speaking (or even, do not necessarily speak English), are often parents of U.S. citizens, and are difficult to employ legally in this brutal economic clime for unskilled laborers. This last point may be the key to understanding the shifting political language toward a back of the line citizenship.

In May, a report issued by the House Joint Economic Council (JEC) found that:

  • “Latinos are…over-represented in two other sectors that were hit hard during this recession: the manufacturing sector and the leisure and hospitality sector. Manufacturing employment fell by 16 percent and employment in the leisure and hospitality sector fell by 4 percent from December 2007 to December 2009. In 2007, 11.6 percent of the Hispanic workforce was employed in the manufacturing sector compared to 11.2 percent of the overall population, and 11.8 percent of the Hispanic workforce was employed in leisure and hospitality sector compared to 8.5 percent of the overall population.”
  • “In 2007, Latinos were under-represented in the only sector that expanded during the recession, the education and health services sector. In 2007, 21 percent of the labor force was employed in the education and health services sector compared to 14.4 percent of the Latino workforce.”

The JEC report did not discuss immigration status. However, again, it is reasonable to assume unauthorized immigrants (like Latinos, generally) are overrepresented in the shrunken unskilled labor pool; and underrepresented in the expanded education and health services sector. In other words, like Latinos, generally, unauthorized immigrants now tend to be employable in all the wrong places and at the wrong time.

So, how does all of this relate to back of the line citizenship?

A responsible path to citizenship (or whatever you want to call it) is one that takes into the account the effects an infusion of 12-14 million largely unskilled workers (including, potentially, many non-English-speakers) will have on overall U.S. employment economy. As it stands, “illegals steal jobs from Americans” because unauthorized immigrants tend to be more-willing to work for lower wages and fewer (if any) benefits than their documented, citizen counterparts. This is especially in the unskilled employment economy.

With the job market for unskilled workers contracting — particularly in the construction, hospitality, and manufacturing sectors where Latinos are overrepresented but nevertheless represent far less than a majority of workers — where can the economy employ 12-14 million new, largely-unskilled citizens? Can the economy currently employ 12-14 million new, largely-unskilled citizens, at all? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no, the U.S. economy cannot current employ unauthorized immigrants as citizens. Citizens are compensated at or above a guaranteed, minimum wage; protected by employment and workplace safety standards, etc. In short, citizens are more-expensive than illegals.

That said, while I have yet to find anyone to confirm that this is the case (no one wants to talk path to citizenship this election season), my thought is that the term back of the line citizenship serves a twofold purpose —

A POLITICAL TERM: To go to the back of the line hearkens a punishment for children who misbehave. As a term, “back of the line” also carries with it denigrating racial undertones rooted in America’s past. In terms of political messaging, the term back of the line works to assure a frustrated non-Latino electorate that unauthorized immigrant criminals will be punished and that they will remain second-class residents until the needs of a more-deserving (or at least, more-legitimate) “front of the line” immigrant group has been satisfied.

A POLICY CLUE: Back of the line implies a waiting period during which the rest of “the line” is processed through the complex, draconian, “broken” immigration system the comprehensive immigration reform bill is (in theory) supposed to overhaul. How will “the line” be formed? What criteria will be used to determine who is at the front and who must wait? As it stands, is likely that these questions will go unanswered at least until after the midterm elections in November. Nevertheless, employment economics will likely be an essential feature of policy discussions about legalizing the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States. While preference may be given to the parents of citizen children, and English-language fluency will likely be non-negotiable prerequisite, expect skilled laborers to receive a preferential hat-tip in the naturalization process. Unskilled & unauthorized immigrants, on the other hand, may necessarily face an indefinite wait at the “back of the line” for an economic recovery that can sustain their legal entry into an U.S. unskilled labor economy that remains as stagnant as it is brutally unsentimental.

Photo Credit: Amnesty Oath, 1865, by Pablo Manriquez

Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Economics · Immigration · Rep. Raul Grijalva

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anna // Sep 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Re: “They have to register.”

    “Register” sounds like something out of the Soviet Union. They should be allowed to APPLY for legal status like everybody else.

    As for the “back of the line” comment, you are right that it’s rooted in racism. There is no “line” and illegal immigrants are not preventing the federal government from processing immigration applications from other parts of the world in a timely manner. You know, the applications from people who are not running from NAFTA and the War on Drugs.

    This language is just another way for the government to remind Latinos that they view them as “less than.”

    Hey, did you watch the Fiorina-Boxer debate? Fiorina said that she supports the Dream Act as a stand alone bill.

  • 2 Barb // Sep 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Who said anything about racism? And, the reason we have immigration laws and quotas on unskilled workers, is to insure that people will not come in to the country who require social services to survive. Illegal immigration overwhelmed the country with just those people. They need to wait their turn to become citizens, since so many are in line before them, skilled people who will benefit the country, don’t need even more expense invested in english classes, and who can stand on their own without welfare, food stamps, etc. Illegals are a slap in the face to everyone who has come legally, and they need to stand up and take their bruises for it.

  • 3 Sharia // Sep 2, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Americans do not understand the seriousness of Latino Immigration. Sending us to the “back of the line” is like telling us we have done something wrong. The imaginary line that the Senator as well as the Congressman speak of is just another way of them trying to say that the topic of the undocumented is unimportant and doesn’t deserve urgency, but how do you ignore the elephant in the room? The number of illegal immigrants that come to make a better life for themselves here in America is constantly increasing. We are such a huge part of America, documented, undocumented, legal or illegal. La Raza Latina makes a difference, and we should not be pushed aside.

  • 4 Jaango // Sep 3, 2010 at 7:15 am

    The “back of the line” talk is all about Priority.

    As for me, I continue to advocate this Priority in the following manner:

    1. If your child was born here in the USA, as an Undocumented Immigrant Parenty, you will be immediately offered the opportunity to become a citizenship. And with the emphasis on the Parents who have been repatriated to the Nation of Origin. Thus, the “value” of citizenship will be “enhanced” given that America has cavalierly rejected and abjectedly dismissed this “littlest citizen” when it comes to whether this child is living in a hovel, lacking in three meals-per-day, lacking in quality medical care, as well, as not having the opportunity for to acquire an overall educationak experience. Yup, when these children were repatriated to their Parent’s Nation of Origin, America didn’t and as yet, hasn’t given a shit about the “value” that accrues for being a citizen here in the United States. Consequently, Latinos-all across America, talk and whine, but when it comes to giving priority to the parents of these “littlest citizens”, we all turned our backs on these kids. Thus, the Latino-Shame, has become oppressive.

    2. As a Second Priority, I would include the DREAM Act. Consquently, being a child of Undocumented Immigrant Parents has a cost that can only be measured in “value” when it comes to citizenship. Unfortunately, only 850,000 of the 2.3 million eligible, would be accepted under the current systemic in place. Thus, Congressional approval of the DREAM Act, will become inconsequential, or until this “systemic process” is altered significantly.

    In closing, the arch-conservative meme for “back of the line” even has Progressives talking this crappola, and too, is a disaster for our political engagement. And Grijalva and all of our Hispanic members of Congress, should be hiding under the table, that is, if we Chicanos, were loud and obnoxious in our “demands” for Democracy. Otherwise, the Laboratory for Democracy morphs into the Laboratory for Lobotomies. And my home state, Arizona has become America’s constant and consistent Exemplar.


  • 5 Juan Alcala // Sep 9, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Illegals should be deported and allowed to apply for legal status within their home country. Yes, this sounds draconian, but by enforcing current immigration laws, the jobs for illegals will disappear and the illegal aliens will “self-deport” with no jobs and no welfare, Section 8, Foodstamps, WIC and “mas programas.” The USA is a sovereign nation and has every right to enforce its sovereignty just like Mexico does. The “indocumentados” here are just law breakers who chose to inore U.S. laws and now expect to be coddled and given a preferential path to citizenship. American Citizenship is not for sale; and Illegals should just wake up to the fact that Americans don’t want them here. American needs a temporary guest worker program not a new, permanent underclasss of 15-20 million mostly destitute, uneducated, and criminally inclined, needy dependents.

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