The time is right to overhaul our nation's immigration laws. Most Democrats and Republicans agree that the system is broken, that it no longer serves its purpose. That's not new. This is: Leading members of both major parties are eager to make a deal. They're ready to seek common ground rather than partisan advantage on a volatile political issue.
This week, a bipartisan group of senators presented a framework for comprehensive immigration reform. So did President Barack Obama, and House members are working on their own proposal.
As always, the difficulty will be the details. Can their principles be melded into legislation, and can they muster a majority in a divided Congress?
We ask this: Can they afford to let this opportunity pass?
U.S. employers want an immigration system designed for a 21st century economy. So do U.S. citizens and would-be legal immigrants. Millions of undocumented residents would welcome an opportunity to come out of the shadows and, for many, to reunite their families.
For high-tech companies, immigration reform means the ability to hire more foreign-born engineers and computer programmers trained in American universities rather than watching them take their skills to other countries.
Farms and other low-wage businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, also rely on immigrant labor. They will benefit from laws acknowledging that reality. So will their presently undocumented employees, who will gain a measure of protection from exploitation.
There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Many of them have been here for years, most are employed, some have spouses and children who are citizens. It's a fantasy to think they will leave on their own — or that the government can round them up for deportation.
An immigration reform plan that streamlines the system for obtaining visas, clears current backlogs and reunites families will be an incentive against entering the country illegally or overstaying a visa. A path to citizenship will encourage those already here to pay taxes, report crimes, obtain driver's licenses and insurance.
Some Republicans say the first step must be border security. Secure borders are indeed important, and much progress already has been made — with 650 of miles of new fences built in the past five years, thousands of new agents and even drone aircraft patrolling the border. In fact, the federal government now spends $4 billion a year more on border security than it spends on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
A record 400,000 people were deported last year. Since the last attempt to overhaul immigration laws, in 2007, illegal border crossings have fallen to a 40-year low — a result of the Great Recession as well as stepped-up enforcement. There may be room for more, but enforcement is happening. Now it's time to expand the focus to some of the other aspects of immigration reform.
The window of opportunity in politics is narrow. In 2007, it closed before Congress acted. The window again is open. Congress and the president must act before it closes again.
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