This is the year to end the incessant arguing about reforming immigration by actually doing it. Shifting politics and tough enforcement have set the stage for action. Congress and the White House should seize the moment.
Nothing is likely to happen on the issue for two months, as Congress navigates the next fiscal crisis created by the need to raise the debt ceiling and authorize spending to keep the government operating. But Congress can, and should, press ahead on immigration reform after that, because two major obstacles no longer appear insurmountable.
For one, the politics of immigration have changed. In recent years, Republicans have led congressional opposition to reform. But Hispanics shunned the party in 2012, giving President Barack Obama 71 percent of their votes. Now congressional Republicans say they've seen the light and will abandon their obstructionism.
At the same time, the federal government is spending lavishly on immigration enforcement and has dramatically ramped up detention, deportation and border security, according to a report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies the movement of people worldwide. Those new facts should mute the "enforcement first" battle cry that energized opposition in the past and derailed reform.
Federal spending on immigration enforcement totaled $18 billion in 2012, more than the $14 billion spent on all other federal law enforcement combined, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Secret Service.
The 430,000 people held in the immigration detention system in 2011 totaled more than those doing time for all other federal offenses. Border Patrol staffing, technology and infrastructure have reached historic highs. And the 410,000 people deported in 2012 were a record number. "Today immigration enforcement can be seen as the federal government's highest criminal law enforcement priority," said Doris Meissner, who co-wrote the MPI report.
So the time is right for comprehensive reform, which should include more flexible temporary work visas, citizenship for people brought here illegally as children, more visas for entrepreneurs and those with advanced degrees, and a route to legalization for the undocumented immigrants already here.
It should also require that officials finally complete the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system (US-VISIT) to identify people who come into the country legally on student or tourist visas and then stay illegally after the visas expire. Estimates suggest that's how 40 percent of the 11 million illegal immigrants here now arrived.
Development of that biometric screening system began in 1996. By 2009 it enabled officials to check visa holders -- those trying to enter through almost all U.S. border crossings, sea- and airports -- against immigration, criminal and terrorist watch lists. But the critical second piece of the system -- exit checks to verify that temporary visa holders actually leave -- is still not in place. That vulnerability must be addressed.
It's time for Congress to create the immigration system the nation needs.