Conservatives are torn over the issue of legalization for illegal immigrants. Some, like Sen. Marco Rubio, support a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, while others, like political scientist Peter Skerry, support legalizing them without a path to citizenship. A third group of conservatives opposes any and all efforts to legalize illegal immigrants in the United States. These groups have stalemated into three intellectually armed camps under the constant watch of a near-unified liberal opposition that supports legalization with a path to citizenship for virtually all illegal immigrants.

The Senate’s immigration reform bill in 2013 included a one-size-fits-all legalization that was the focal point of political opposition. Despite the opposition, that legalization plan would have legalized only about 70 percent of illegal immigrants, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Other proposals for immigration reform and legalization have failed continuously over the last decade. But a better path toward legal status and an easier political debate over legalization are possible.
The policy preferences of path-to-citizenship conservatives and legalization-without-citizenship conservatives can be combined into one reform package that will outweigh opposition by the anti-legalization conservatives and attract liberal support. The reform idea proposed here is a three-tiered legalization system that allows otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants to individually choose for themselves whether they want to be on a path to citizenship or just want permanent legal residency without the option to naturalize. Instead of a one-size-fit all legalization program, which has failed to pass Congress every time it has been proposed since 2001, a three-tiered plan would allow illegal immigrants to pick for themselves and be politically viable with liberals and pro-reform conservatives.