President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform at a Las...

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform at a Las Vegas high school on Jan. 29, 2013. Credit: AP

President Barack Obama has forced action on immigration after years of national political paralysis.

It's too bad it has come to this. Legislation would have been preferable. Congress has the power to do more than Obama can to fix what's broken. But it hasn't. Reform championed by President George W. Bush died in 2007, and a bipartisan reform bill the U.S. Senate passed 17 months ago has languished in the House of Representatives.

The executive actions Obama signed Friday will allow 5 million people here without permission to, as he said, "get right with the law." With those strokes of the pen, he altered the political landscape for this volatile debate.

Now congressional Republicans have a decision to make. They can sue Obama or attempt to impeach him and argue endlessly about process and the limits of presidential power, or they can seize the initiative by accepting Obama's challenge to pass a bill.

They should pass a bill.

Immigration has always been a thorny issue for the nation. That's not going to change no matter what Obama or the next Congress does. But we have to find a way to advance the ball. That's what Obama has done by skirting Congress and trying to shift the focus to immigrants, where it should be.

His executive actions will let millions of people stay in the country for three years without fear of deportation. Four million will qualify because they've been here at least five years, have children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents, pass a criminal-background check, register with immigration officials and pay taxes. Expansion of the program for Dreamers will allow another million people brought here illegally as children to stay.

As a practical matter, most of those people weren't going to be deported, anyway. But now, rather than being trapped in low-wage, off-the-books jobs and living in perpetual fear of a knock on the door that could rip their families apart, they'll be able to stay temporarily and get on with their lives.

That's big, but it leaves a lot undone -- and the nation will need an honest debate about immigration to find solutions to fix it all.

Congress should provide a path to legalization for all 11 million people here illegally, including the 6 million who won't qualify under Obama's executive actions. But concern that we'll look up 15 or 20 years after that's done and find additional millions here illegally is legitimate. That's what happened after 3 million people received legal status under the immigration reform act Ronald Reagan signed in 1986.

It's impossible to seal the borders so tight that nobody can slip through. But officials need to do as good a job of it as possible. A lot has been done. There are more agents and technology deployed on our borders than at any time in history, and illegal crossings have been halved in the past six years, Obama said. Still, more can and should be done.

We'll never be able to catch all the employers who hire immigrants here illegally. But workplace enforcement and employer penalties should be ramped up so fewer are willing to take that risk.

Many critics say their ancestors arrived here legally. That often happened before the legal immigration system became the glacial, burdensome beast that exists today. It has to be modernized to better meet humanitarian needs and the demands of the labor market.

Locally and nationally we will have a fierce debate. Let's make it an honest one. We all know or have had contact with those here illegally. They are our neighbors and classmates. We worship together. Some repair our homes, care for our children and elderly, harvest our food and start new businesses. Many cross the Southern border. Others fly in on student or tourist visas and stay after they expire. Bold, ambitious people from countries the world over will continue flocking to the United States because, proudly, it is a powerful beacon of freedom and opportunity.

The challenge is to manage that flow to maximize its many benefits for the nation.


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