After years of debate, division and stalemate, a shift in political calculations has resuscitated the possibility of reforming the nation's immigration system. On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled its proposal. On Tuesday, President Obama followed with his suggestions. These developments suggest that lawmakers may finally have the political courage, and the necessary incentives, to reach an agreement that has eluded leaders of both parties for more than a decade.
Both proposals offer a framework for dealing with the estimated 11 million immigrants who live here illegally, enforcing immigration law at the border and the workplace, extending citizenship to children brought to this country illegally by their parents, and modernizing the current visa system to help retain highly educated young people and attract more entrepreneurs. That's a good start. As the debate moves from rhetoric to legislation, all parties should be guided by broad principles of humanity and common sense. Among them:
• Simple amnesty is not desirable — it rewards too many for breaking the law. But meaningful reform must provide an opportunity for those undocumented immigrants already in the country to secure citizenship, and that route cannot be so tortuous or punitive that it defeats the goal. Those who are illegally in the country ought to pay a penalty and be made to wait for a green card. But the wait must not punish immigrants based on their country of origin or be so long that it discourages them from seeking citizenship. Under the current system, an immigrant from Britain who overstayed a student visa would face a far shorter line than someone who illegally crossed the border from Mexico, who would be forced to wait at least a decade before qualifying for a green card.
• Border security and internal enforcement are legitimate elements of a coherent immigration system. Demanding an airtight border, however, is unrealistic and irrational. It also ignores that illegal immigration is decreasing, in part because fewer immigrants are coming from countries such as Mexico, where the birthrate has plummeted in recent years. Constructing a fence that stretches from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico isn't the answer. Rather, lawmakers should rely on a combination of barriers, Border Patrol agents and tougher employer sanctions to turn away and deport those who continue to enter the country illegally.
• The nation's legal immigration system must serve its economic interests. The current rules for allocating visas to workers were established in 1990. Today's economy is far different. Employers are creating more high-skill jobs than they can fill. To educate foreign students at American colleges and universities and then force them leave deprives the U.S. of their skills. That's foolish.
• Immigrants who want to work in this country and then return home should have the opportunity to do so. This is particularly an issue in agriculture, where many growers rely on undocumented immigrants because they cannot recruit Americans to do the work. One solution would be to allow undocumented workers who are already harvesting crops to legalize their status as long as they have worked at least six months in the U.S. during the last five years. They would be required to undergo a background check, pay a fine and work in the fields for at least three more years.
This is a rare moment. Labor Democrats once flinched at proposals that might threaten American jobs, but Latinos have become a formidable force in the Democratic coalition. Republicans once favored harsh measures toward illegal immigrants, but they learned the political cost of that stand in the most recent election. For once, all sides recognize that political advantage, economic opportunity and human decency demand comprehensive immigration reform.