A plain English guide to the 2016 immigration debate

FILE - In this June 20, 2014, file photo, immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally stand in line for tickets at the bus station after they were released from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in McAllen, Texas. (AP...
FILE - In this June 20, 2014, file photo, immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally stand in line for tickets at the bus station after they were released from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in McAllen, Texas. (AP... (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

Chance Seales, Media General National Correspondent – WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Political debates are formulated to create soundbites and drown listeners in jargon.

Immigration gets the most attention of any issue in 2016, but much of the discussion is awash in terminology that's less than clear to most Americans.

It inflames without informing.

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump argue the merits of comprehensive immigration reform, what do they mean?

How about refugees? Asylum seekers? Granting legal status?

Let's quickly clear up the differences – real, arbitrary, and artificial – that will serve as guideposts during the upcoming immigration debates.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Politicians from both sides love to tout the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform —or "CIR" in D.C. parlance.

CIR usually includes three major elements: increased border security, legal prescriptions for the 11-14 million (depending on who's counting) people living in the U.S. illegally, and congressional approval.

Republicans' favorite CIR component, generally speaking, is increased funding for improved border security. This means the detection, apprehension and deportation of anyone attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The Canadian border is rarely mentioned.

Democrats are partial to the CIR portion that would deal with illegal immigrants already residing in the country. With millions of undocumented parents and children "living in the shadows," Dems are anxious for the opportunity to create a path for the majority of them to identify themselves and gain legal recognition for living in America.

The biggest snag is that CIR requires congressional approval. Any final agreement would need an okay from the House, Senate and president.

With Republicans currently in charge of the House and Senate, and a Democrat in the White House, a compromise isn't easy to strike; both parties end up displeasing their base of supporters when they give an inch.

The Senate did manage to pass a CIR package in 2013 on a bipartisan basis, but the GOP-controlled House nixed the measure. It sent Senate Republicans scrambling, and several of them, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ended up disavowing the bill they helped craft.

Illegal Immigrant

You'll rarely, if ever, hear a Democrat utter the words "illegal immigrant" or "illegal alien."

Republicans, on the other hand, embrace the term because it conveys the dramatic failings of our current system and pervasive presence of millions of people they often paint as law-breakers who undercut American jobs and wages.

Furthermore, "illegal immigrant" dings the perception that not extending additional rights to this population is somehow robbing them of legal provisions due them.

Undocumented Immigrant

Democrats prefer the term "undocumented."

For all intents and purposes, this is the same group numbering 11-14 million people that Republicans customarily call "illegal immigrants."

Democrats choose to highlight the economic, labor, and tax contributions made by these immigrants by tacking on the word "worker." You'll often hear them recite the same lines about how "undocumented workers do the agricultural work that Americans don't want to do."

With Hispanics making up a large part of the Democratic base, and a quickly growing sector of the electorate, the term "undocumented workers" further endears the left-wing to voters who don't take kindly to millions of people being labeled "illegal."

Visa Overstays

Foreign visitors and students are granted visas to enter the United States to travel and study.

Those visas are strictly limited timewise. When it expires, they have to go back home.

But many of them never leave.

Last year approximately 500,000+ visa recipients overstayed their permitted time, disappearing into the population and never returning home. An estimated 99% departed on time, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Studies suggest that visa overstays account for up to 40 percent of the illegal immigrant population, originating from all over the world.

Democrats often point to this in debates to bring context and deflect heat from the Latin-born people in the country illegally, adding that illegal immigration from Mexico has shown a net decrease over the last half decade.


There's been a huge influx over the past two years of asylum seekers entering the U.S. from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Many of these people are women and minors, who immediately turn themselves into border patrol upon arrival and petition for asylum status.

Due to rampant gang violence in their home countries, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have granted tens of thousands of these requests, reasoning that this population reasonably feared for their physical safety.

Under U.S. law, it is completely legal for those legitimately seeking asylum to cross the border without gaining prior permission.


The major difference between refugee and asylum seekers is that refugee status is granted while the applicant is living outside the U.S.

The category is narrow and applies to specific populations.

Syria is in the grips of a bloody civil war that's left hundreds of thousands of citizens dead and represents the most notable source of refugees at present time.

Bordering countries have accepted several hundred thousand fleeing Syrians as refugees.

The U.S. just hit its goal of accepting 10,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, after a screening process the government described as stringent.

However, the documents required to accurately and sufficiently review applicants' backgrounds are largely lost or destroyed.

ISIS has called for radicals to exploit this loophole.

Many critics of the process warn that the U.S. could be welcoming extremists, or terrorist sympathizers, who could then launch attacks or sponsor dangerous family members to enter the country at a later date.

The United States will reportedly accept 110,000 total refugees next year, which is "a nearly 30 percent increase from the 85,000 allowed in over the previous year," reports the Associated Press.

Legal Status

Granting legal status to illegal immigrants can take many forms.

The most popular would be the creation of a legal mechanism by which millions of people currently living in the country could register with the government, pay back taxes, and gain legal permission to work in the United States.

This would also likely include the ability to obtain legitimate driver's licenses and social security numbers.

Two caveats: immigrants with a criminal history (aside from illegally crossing the border) would not be eligible and some Republicans like Donald Trump insist that applicants must first return to their home countries before legal status is fully granted.

Pathway to Citizenship

Creating a pathway to citizenship is the crown jewel for Democrats and a poison pill for Republicans.

It all comes down to votes.

Simply put, U.S. citizens get to vote.

So if 11-14 million people were suddenly allowed to help pick U.S. presidents and members of Congress, the whole game would change.

Texas could go blue – that's a lot of electoral votes for Democrats.

Demographically, Hispanics are the fastest growing portion of the population. Their voting power is growing quickly – even though they vote at lower rates than white and black citizens – as the white electorate steadily shrinks.

The number of eligible Hispanic voters is projected to be 40% higher in 2016 than in 2008, reports Pew Research Center.

Republicans would love to capture more Hispanic votes, but they can read the polls; Latinos, especially those who are foreign-born, support Democrats by a wide margin.

The GOP will likely try to close this gap by supporting more immigrant-friendly policies (e.g., legal status) without jumping off what they view as an electoral cliff.

Some conservatives call any concessions "amnesty." Others call it common sense.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has promised to push a pathway to citizenship, housed in a larger CIR bill, within her first 100 days in office.

Follow Chance

Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales

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