Editorial: Make legal immigration the better choice

Washington has an opportunity to overhaul the nation's Washington has an opportunity to overhaul the nation's broken immigration system in a humane way to help restore respect for the law, strengthen the nation's economy and improve the lives of millions chasing the American dream. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

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The ambitious and bipartisan immigration bill just introduced in the U.S. Senate shouldn't be delayed or derailed by the Boston Marathon bombings. Stopping illegal entry and fixing our rules for legal immigration must get done.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was formally charged yesterday with the bombings. If the investigation of the him and deceased brother Tamerlan, also an immigrant, illuminates problems in the current process for asylum and refugee cases, we should make remedies. An improved system would better serve our national security by letting us know who is here.

Up until the marathon tragedy, it was illegal entry into the country that defined the immigration debate. That illegal entry must be reined in. And the rules for legal immigration need to be retooled to meet the needs of employers, workers and the economy. The Senate will have to compromise to navigate the controversies. No one side will get all it wants. The key is for the updated system to make it more practical for people to immigrate legally than illegally.

To do that, the Senate bill would bolster border security by funding more fences, staffing and surveillance, including drones. Employers would be required to check electronic biometric cards to ensure that non-citizens are authorized to work.

Eleven million people in the country illegally, including about 100,000 on Long Island, would be offered a long, arduous path to citizenship -- but only if the borders are secure. Those who arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, would initially be eligible for "registered provisional immigrant" status, allowing them to live and work here, though not to collect federal benefits. Then, if tough border security benchmarks are met, those without serious criminal records who speak English and pay fines, fees and taxes would be eligible in 10 years for green cards, which allow permanent residency, and three years later for citizenship. The so-called Dreamers brought here illegally as children would be eligible for green cards after five years, and then citizenship.

In the critical area of legal immigration, the bill would reform or create visa programs for farm workers, temporary laborers and relatives of legal residents. And it would create a visa based on merit -- education, job skills and work history -- for highly skilled workers.

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There are some points for concern. Securing the borders is too important to give homeland security officials as many as 10 more years to deploy a system at airports and seaports to ensure that people who come to the United States on student or tourist visas leave when they expire. That was the route into the country for most of the 9/11 terrorists. And 4 in 10 of the immigrants here illegally overstayed visas. Homeland security has been working to develop its U.S. Visit system for a decade with little success. Congress should consider farming out the work to private companies.

Washington has an opportunity to overhaul the nation's broken immigration system in a humane way to help restore respect for the law, strengthen the nation's economy and improve the lives of millions chasing the American dream. Immigration has served this nation so well for so long. It's time again to improve how we do it.

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