Immigration reform long overdue

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Most reliable estimates have it that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States – just a little bit less than the population of Pennsylvania.


In an ideal world, they would have entered the country legally, rather than slipping into the United States through a porous Southern border or simply staying put and lying low when their visas expired. But it’s not an ideal world; they are here and have mostly been absorbed into the economy. Launching a massive dragnet to deport all illegal immigrants from New England to Southern California – a dream of many on the obstinate right – would be an enormously expensive undertaking and likely meet with limited success (and, ironically, the people who yearn to “deport ’em all” are more often than not the same ones most eager to apply a meat cleaver to government spending).


So the renewed efforts by a bipartisan conclave of U.S. senators and President Obama to reform immigration and provide a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants is a most welcome development. A Senate framework released this week and largely embraced by the president could well succeed where other attempts at immigration reform have foundered.


The Senate outline, which likely will be modified somewhat once it’s written into legislation, is a mix of some carrots and many sticks – it would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here, while, at the same time, beefing up border security and establishing both an employment-verification system and a method that would more rigorously track when visitors are supposed to leave the country.


Some undocumented immigrants who have attained advanced degrees would be given preference, as well as agricultural workers and students who were minors when they entered this country with their families and have not had any scrapes with the law. The remainder would have to climb a steep hill, going through a probationary status, paying fines and back taxes, and displaying a mastery of English and an understanding of the country’s history and its system of government. And, even then, they would have to cool their heels before being granted full citizenship until the border is deemed fully secure and all other immigration backlogs are cleared – two daunting standards that could reasonably be altered in negotiations.


Despite the apparent enthusiasm for immigration reform by the Senate and President Obama, the latter of whom sees it as a pillar of a legacy he would like to build, there’s no telling whether immigration reform legislation will survive in the House of Representatives, with its oversupply of Tea Party Republicans staking out ever more right-wing positions out of fear of a primary challenge. But one hopes they will see immigration reform not only as an embrace of sanity and wise, humane public policy, but also a long-term boost to their electoral prospects – if the national GOP is perceived as being hostile to the interests of Latinos and other immigrants, they will continue to have election nights as joyless as the one they had in November. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose state could change from red to blue if inroads are not made to the Hispanic community by Republicans, summed it up succinctly: “Elections. Elections.”


If immigration reform makes it to the president’s desk in the months ahead, it would be a milestone for undocumented immigrants, of course, who would at last be able to fulfill the whole promise of the American Dream, and a long overdue demonstration that lawmakers on Capitol Hill can come together to solve big problems.


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