Breakthrough on immigration


A bipartisan group of eight senators defied conventional wisdom and broke through years of political gridlock Wednesday when they unveiled a rational, pragmatic plan to overhaul the nation’s unworkable immigration system. The bill they introduced would not only provide a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, but would also beef up security at the border, toughen immigration enforcement at the workplace and create a modern visa system to speed the pace of legal immigration while helping the U.S. remain competitive in a global economy.

Undoubtedly, the Senate bill introduced by the so-called Gang of Eight will face serious challenges and undergo many changes, especially in the House, where some Republicans have already signaled their intent to derail it, just as they did in 2007 with a similar measure. But we urge Congress to stand by what is best in this bill as the process gets under way. Though not perfect, the bill provides a very good starting point for the robust overhaul that is long overdue.

At the heart of the legislation is a plan to provide legal status — and a path to citizenship — for millions of immigrants living here illegally if they pass a criminal background check and pay a penalty and back taxes. Initially, they would be given a new status as “registered provisional immigrants” — neither citizens nor permanent residents, but not illegal either. Then they would have to wait 10 years (behind millions of others who have been patiently waiting in their home countries) before getting green cards, and another three before seeking citizenship.

One worrisome element of the Senate plan is that it would tie the full legalization of undocumented immigrants in this country to border security benchmarks that are fuzzy and outside of their control. Before they could be sure that they would get and keep their legal status, it would have to be shown that the U.S.-Mexico border had been secured and that 90 percent of immigrants attempting to sneak across the busiest sectors were being turned back. Such arbitrary triggers make little sense and would keep millions of people waiting for far too long before knowing for certain that they could remain here permanently. Surely there’s a fairer and more straightforward approach.

If the goal is to make sure the United States doesn’t find itself with a whole new group of illegal immigrants in another decade or two, the bill proposes many other steps designed to strengthen control of the borders and to toughen internal enforcement. For instance, it calls for spending more than $3 billion to add high-tech surveillance, including drones to patrol the border with Mexico. And it requires all employers within the next five years to begin using the controversial E-Verify program, which checks the immigration status of new hires against a federal database.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the bill is its admirable attempt to make modern sense out of the country’s outdated visa system. It would provide more visas on the basis of applicants’ skills and education and fewer for extended family members.

Under the proposed rules, although extended family members would no longer get as much of a leg up, about half of all visas issued would still be awarded to the spouses and children of legal immigrants and citizens. The realities of today’s economy would be addressed by increasing the number of high-tech visas and creating a merit system that would give points to individuals based on education, employment and other factors. Consider that Microsoft had more than 6,200 jobs for engineers and computer scientists in January it couldn’t fill, in part because many of the young people graduating from American universities in those fields are foreign students who need visas to remain in the United States. The Senate bill would address that problem.

It would also create a new guest worker program for people who want to come to this country as farm workers temporarily; those workers would be expected to return to their home countries when their visas expire. Although legitimate questions have been raised about a program that creates an official new tier of second-class, nonresident workers, the idea could be acceptable if enough protections for workers are included to ensure that guest workers are not at the mercy of employers. The bill also creates a new W visa that would allow in as many as 200,000 low-skilled house cleaners, landscapers and workers in other occupations over the coming decade.

The bill clearly has weaknesses. But its strengths — including a provision to fast-track the legalization of the so-called Dreamers, or young people who were brought to the U.S. as minors and are enrolled in college or served in the military — far outweigh our concerns at this point.

That this bill came together at all is extraordinary given the political climate in Washington today, and it presents lawmakers with an opportunity to do what they were elected to do. But the path ahead will be neither straight nor smooth, and they will have to muster a fair amount of political courage to draft a humane and workable immigration law that does right by this country, all of its residents and those who hope to make a new life here.