Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Dennis Cook/AP
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While unveiling an alternative to the DREAM ACT — but with no route to citizenship — Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona suggested that illegal immigrants brought here as children can easily get on a path to citizenship if they marry U.S. citizens.

However, Kyl’s assumption, expressed at a Capitol press conference Tuesday, is wrong in practical terms. A recent Center for Public Integrity and KQED public radio report detailed how penalties adopted by Congress in 1996 are ousting undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens for at least a decade, sometimes longer, when they try to obtain legal status based on marriages.

Thousands of undocumented spouses have already found out the hard way that they may actually be forbidden from living in the United States as the result of their American partners’ efforts to sponsor them for legal permanent residency.

To finish the residency visa process, undocumented spouses must leave the United States and return to their home countries for an in-person interview with U.S. consular officials. Once they are out of the United States, however, the undocumented spouses are officially told at their interviews that they are barred from re-entering the U.S. as a punishment for entering illegally in the past.

Thousands of families have been split apart by these penalties, and are suffering severe economic and personal hardship. Thousands of other couples are now too afraid to come forward to apply for residency as a result.

President Obama plans to allow some couples to first apply for hardship waivers that shorten penalties before the undocumented spouse has to go to that final interview — and get stuck abroad. But many thousands of couples are destined not to qualify because of the 1996 law’s tough mandatory penalties, as the Center piece explains.

Another Center piece further explains the narrow parameters of the current immigration system, and why illegal immigrants, young or old, realistically have no lines to get into in an effort to immigrate legally — as much as politicians insist that’s what they should do.

Still, Kyl argued Tuesday that under existing law, marriage to U.S. citizens is the surest path to citizenship for young immigrants who wouldn’t get that opportunity from a bill he’s filed along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

“As a practical matter,” Kyl said, “by definition these are young people. Realistically, young people frequently get married. In this country, the biggest marriage pool are U.S. citizens. A U.S. citizen can petition for a spouse to become a citizen in a very short period of time, around a year. So I don’t think it’s any big secret that a lot of people who might participate in this program (set up by his bill) are going to have a very quick path to citizenship if that’s the path that they choose.”

The Republican senators’ legislation, the Achieve Act, would allow youths to earn renewable but forever-limited legal status after finishing college or the military. The bill wouldn’t open up a way to let them eventually earn, as the long-stalled DREAM Act would, permanent legal status – a green card. An immigrant must have a green card first, for a certain number of years, before he or she becomes eligible to apply for citizenship.

Kyl and Hutchison are retiring from the Senate this year, so they won’t be around to fight for the Achieve Act, which they called a starting point to more negotiations over immigration reform.

A number of GOP leaders have argued that softening the GOP’s stand against all forms of amnesty is key if Republicans want to attract more Latino voters — who proved key to President Obama’s re-election victory.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he wouldn’t support Kyl’s bill precisely because it fails to include a path to a green card and eventual citizenship, according to the Arizona Republic. While Grijalva said it was a good sign that some in the GOP want to return to negotiating immigration reform, he doesn’t think Latino voters will go for the limited-status concepts in the Achieve Act either.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...