But the key to any reform package is securing the borders.
That comes first.
Otherwise, the Senate plan unveiled this week could make matters worse if the economy heats up and there’s a greater financial incentive for people to enter this country illegally.
Politically, what’s providing much of the current impetus in Washington for immigration reform is the growing influence of the Hispanic vote. In last year’s presidential race, President Obama captured 71 percent of Hispanic voters. Thoughtful Republicans believe that if the GOP wants to remain competitive in the future, the party must be more constructive and less intransigent.
“We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the eight members of the Senate group. Party leaders ignore this reality at their own peril.
But beyond politics, there are practical considerations that must be addressed. An estimated 11 million people are living in the United States illegally. Rounding all of them up would be next to impossible, as well as prohibitively expensive, a horrible use of limited public resources and inhumane.
A better option is to bring these residents out of the shadows. Provide a way for them — if they follow the rules — to live here, without fear, so they can openly climb the ladder of success.
The Senate group’s proposal calls for legalization of those who are here illegally, provided they pay back taxes and a fine. That’s not asking too much. Call it pay to play. If someone wants to enjoy the benefits that come from living in this country, that individual must ante up.
But a critical part of this pathway to citizenship is a trigger mechanism — the opportunity to pursue this goal would not become available until the border was secured and new systems were in place for employers to verify workers’ immigration status.
America has taken some steps to improve border security. But it needs to do more.
A big reason why the number of illegal immigrants has been down in recent years isn’t a beefed-up Border Patrol. It’s the sour economy, especially in the construction trades. Most people come here from Mexico and Central America to work, so they can send money to their families back home. When jobs disappear, they vanish, too.
So what happens when the economy fully rebounds? Unless the border is sufficiently secured, the combination of legalization and more jobs could trigger a new wave of illegal immigration. Many will remember what happened in 1986, when an amnesty program created an incentive for more people to illegally enter the country. Lawmakers must not repeat that mistake.
Yet Congress must do something. This Senate plan is a healthy start.
The eight senators who came up with this proposal — four Democrats, four Republicans — deserve applause. That’s how Congress is supposed to work.
Among the Republican senators who have signed on are two conservatives: Florida’s Marco Rubio and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American, said in a TV interview that “we’re not trying to punish anybody here. It’s not about that we’re angry at immigrants. It’s about the fact that we don’t want this to ever happen again and we don’t want to be unfair to the people that have done it in the right way.”
Let’s hope the House, which is expected to release its own immigration reform package, can be just as productive.