Progress, at last

April 21, 2013 

It was an issue of which politicians at all levels seemed afraid to speak. Neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress wanted to wade into immigration reform for decades, so immense was the issue’s complexity. Now, at last, senators in a bipartisan group have gotten their feet wet.

This “Gang of Eight,” including most notably Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, filed a bill that would strengthen enforcement of border security, requiring that it be sealed in effect, before illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before the end of 2011 could be eligible for legal residency.

The path would not be easy. Applicants must be law-abiding, pay several required fees and back taxes, and be provisional residents for 10 years before following the same path to legal residency as those immigrants who are in the country legally.

Agricultural workers would have “blue cards,” which would signal they’ve paid their taxes and haven’t committed any crimes.

These are positive steps, with the border security emphasis a bow to conservatives who wanted that addressed before other reforms. While those in the Gang of Eight deserve credit for their labors, the political reality is that the main reason immigration reform has taken hold in a Congress that for years has run away from it is President Barack Obama. The president’s re-election, with substantial support from diverse members of the electorate, signaled to Republicans that the country is changing in terms of its makeup, ethnically and racially. Younger Americans also are impatient for reform.

There is no reliable estimate of the number of illegal immigrants currently residing within U.S. borders, though it seems to be near 11 million. Some crossed the border illegally for work. Some were brought here by their parents, and the legislation appropriately goes easier in terms of granting those immigrants certain rights.

Many illegal immigrants have done well, helped their families back home, raised their children in the shadows but been in effect productive noncitizens. Others have fallen by the wayside and become members of the criminal underground.

Congress, in failing to wrestle with the fine points of immigration reform in a way that recognizes the reality of the situation in 2013, has in effect passed the responsibility to the states. Some have tried to cope with the number of illegal immigrants through apprehension and deportation, creating a patchwork of law enforcement that sometimes treats illegal immigrant families harshly.

Of course illegal immigrants who want to stay in the United States must be law-abiding. Of course those who are not, who have committed serious crimes, should be punished and deported. Of course the path to lawful status should not be strewn with rose petals. But there ought to be one.

This nation of immigrants can and must face the need for reform and act upon it. At least eight senators have done something toward that end.

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