This is the time to do something important on immigration. It's "a system that's been broken for way too long," President Barack Obama said Tuesday in Las Vegas as he began his promised drive for reform.
The basic approach to fixing it, which a bipartisan group of senators proposed Monday, has been kicking around for more than six years. It includes tighter border security, an effective employment verification system, a path to citizenship and improvements in legal immigration to better meet the nation's workforce needs.
The plan that President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pushed in 2007 was killed in the Senate by opponents who refused to reward people who crossed the border illegally with legal status. But over the years security along the country's southwest border has been tightened dramatically. Illegal entry has declined 80 percent since 2000. The Obama administration has deported a record number of people.
And the political landscape was dramatically reshaped in November by the emergence of a powerful Hispanic voting bloc that rejected Republicans' hard line and voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
"For the first time ever there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who is leading the effort along with GOP star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). McCain, asked Monday, why the Republicans were changing course, had a simple answer. "Elections, elections." This is the moment and Obama must seize it.
The Senate blueprint calls for providing the personnel, infrastructure and technology needed to better secure the borders. It will complete a system to track whether people who come here legally on temporary visas actually leave when they expire.
People here illegally would be granted probationary legal status, allowing them to stay and work if they register, pass a background check, and pay a fine and back taxes. But they would all be denied citizenship until a commission of border-state officials, created to monitor progress on security, recommends that promised new measures have been completed. Recognizing those states' particular problem with illegal immigration should help defuse opposition. But until specific legislation is written, it's difficult to tell whether this is a shrewd move or a poison pill that will stop any real gains.
Much of the opposition to reform is a reaction to the last round in 1986, when 3 million undocumented immigrants were given legal status; the border security promised then never materialized. The result? Eleven million more illegal immigrants. Nobody wants to see that repeated, but past failure can't be a bar to future progress.
Allowing those 11 million men and women to emerge from the shadows -- to work, engage in civic life and travel abroad to see their families -- is the compassionate thing to do. And an efficient legal immigration system that allows for more temporary agricultural workers and entrepreneurs to enter the country, and more science, technology, engineering and math graduates educated here to remain, is critical for our future economic prosperity. But in the end, as Obama said in Las Vegas, "This is not just a debate about policy. It's about people."