The wait for Washington politicians to compromise on a workable immigration system has been so long and frustrating, it's tempting to celebrate the mere fact that a group of prominent U.S. senators from both parties has come together to introduce a bill. This is a notable milestone, but a rugged debate lies between here and passage.
If that debate focuses on the right things — not on dogma and semantics but on real examination of the plan's practical effects — the bill's core should survive and lead the nation to an immigration policy that better serves modern needs.
President Obama's re-election, Republicans' moderation on the issue in light of Latino voters' rising influence, and public support for providing a path to citizenship create an opportunity for new laws that both limit illegal immigration and allow society and the economy to benefit more from legal immigration.
Even those who dislike the sort of changes contained in the bill formally unveiled Thursday must admit that inaction is an unacceptable alternative. The status quo leaves state and local law enforcement to wrestle, often haplessly, with the issue. The futility of trying to deport 11 million here illegally, offering no prospect of legal status, leaves an underclass without incentive to contribute to society.
So, does the bill submitted by eight senators address the correct concerns? Does it address them effectively, or are amendments needed? The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second will come only from an honest debate long on data and short on rhetoric.
All along, the proper goals for reform have included:
'¢ Reducing the number of people in the U.S. illegally, those who sneak in or overstay visas; illegal immigration rates have dropped in recent years, but can be made lower.
'¢ Holding the undocumented immigrants who are already here accountable for breaking the law.
'¢ Creating ways for those here illegally, especially young people brought here by their families, to earn legal status.
'¢ And allowing industries to take advantage of the talents of both high-skilled and so-called low-skilled workers without exploiting the workers themselves.
The bill proposes 844 pages of ways forward, something for everybody to love and loathe.
Before raising anybody's legal residency status, the bill requires improved border security, aiming to catch or rebuff 90 percent of illegal border crossers, and implementation of the E-Verify system for checking employees' status; this means added border fencing, agents and drones, and funding for prosecutions. No undocumented immigrants would be legalized until all legal applicants have been served.
Only people who have been here since before Dec. 31, 2011, have records free of felonies and pay $500 fines would be eligible for 10 years of provisional legal status, after which they'd have to pay $1,000 more, be up to date on taxes, meet work requirements and know English to seek permanent residency. People brought here as kids could get green cards sooner.
The bill would raise the legal immigration quota for high-skilled workers, and create a visa program for agricultural and other manual laborers.
Would adding such workers' productivity to the economy eliminate concerns that their presence could reduce jobs and wages for citizens? That's the sort of question Congress faces.
Other questions: Are the bill's border-security thresholds reachable? Are the worker visa quotas effective? Will the whole undertaking pay for itself?
So far, the "debate" has been too much about the claim by the bill's opponents that it offers illegal immigrants "amnesty." Let's cut out the semantic arguments. Lawmakers must tell the country: Will the plan pay off or not?
It is a time to neither celebrate a triumph nor reject the bill out of hand. It is a time to see what's good about it and explore improving the rest of it by asking the right questions.