Border security versus a path to citizenship will be the pitched battle this week when Congress begins debating the first broad overhaul of the broken immigration system in a quarter century. But the enduring legacy of reform needs to be retooled rules for entering the country legally. They must enhance the nation's competitiveness in the global economy.
The failings of the immigration system are legion, and they've gone largely unattended since 1986. As a result there are an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally, including about 100,000 on Long Island, while workers with skills crucial to the economy are kept out or forced to leave after earning advanced degrees. Previous attempts to remedy the situation -- most recently in 2007 under President George W. Bush -- fell victim to the insistence in Congress that the borders be sealed tight before any other reforms are entertained.
Controlling the flow of people into the country is a vital part of what has to be done, and a big part of what the reforms before the Senate would deliver. But the fight over how much security is enough shouldn't be allowed to kill reform once again.
It will be difficult to shepherd into law any plan that creates a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, authorizes a new visa program for high-tech and highly skilled people, and reforms visas for farm workers, temporary laborers and relatives of legal residents. Differences of opinion on what should be done are deep and strong, especially in the House of Representatives. But the Senate, at least, has gotten off to a promising start.
For once in a very long while, the legislative process has worked, so far, as it should. A bipartisan "gang of eight," senators, led by Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), negotiated a bill that was amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is now headed to the floor for consideration by the full Senate.
The stage was set for that comity in 2012, when seven in 10 Hispanic voters, many energized by the desire for rational immigration policies, voted to re-elect President Barack Obama. Since then, some Republicans have muted their opposition to reform, and party leaders in the Senate are invested in passing a bill.
Unfortunately, the House of Representatives may be the place where hope for reform goes to die.
That chamber has no consensus on how to proceed. A bipartisan group of representatives that has toiled to produce a broad bill may unveil legislation in the coming weeks. But the group lost a key member last week when Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Hispanic immigration lawyer elected with tea party support, dropped out. He has joined other Republicans pushing for a piecemeal approach that would carve reform into a series of individual bills for separate votes.
That approach is a formula for failure. At best it would address only bits and pieces of the nation's immigration problem. At worst it would kill reform by making it impossible to reconcile any bills that emerge from the House and Senate.
House Republicans sent an unmistakable signal Thursday that they will take a hard line on immigration. They voted overwhelmingly to end a policy Obama initiated by executive order that halted the deportation of "dreamers," who are immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. And some are pushing for unrealistic border security goals to be met before anyone could embark on a path to legalization.
It will take compromise to navigate this emotional thicket. Nobody will get everything he or she wants. The prize should be a system that restores respect for the law by making it tougher to enter the country illegally, while ensuring that people chasing the American dream who have skills to help the nation prosper, can do so legally.