Editorial: Immigration finally is on the front burner

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 - 4:32 pm | Page 8A

"The Democrats want it and the Republicans need it," said David Gergen, adviser to four presidents, on immigration reform.

He predicted on election night that whoever won, we would see legislation, which today looks much more likely than in the past. A bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators put forth a reasonable set of immigration reform principles on Monday. They aim to have a bill by March, with Senate passage by August.

The House, too, seems interested. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the election, "This issue has been around far too long. … A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

Boehner repeated that view last week, as reported in The Hill: "I said it the day after the election. I meant it, and we're going to have to deal with it." A bipartisan group of House members has been meeting and will come up with a proposal.

The president, who failed to move immigration reform in his first term as promised, plans to unveil his plan today in Nevada. He has signaled he wants a bill on his desk this year.

The principles laid out by the four Senate Democrats and four Republicans reflect the basics of what the United States needs to create a working immigration system – and that Americans support, as indicated in numerous polls.

First, the eight senators aim to address underlying causes of illegal immigration – for example, getting rid of visa backlogs and setting a more reasonable number of immigrant visas to prevent future backlogs.

Backlogs force families to live apart for years, which encourages illegal immigration. "We all agree," the senators said in a statement, "that we must reduce backlogs in the family and employment visa categories so that future immigrants view our future legal immigration system as the exclusive means for entry into the United States."

The senators also take on the vexing issue of the existing illegal immigrant population – recognizing that it is not possible to round up and deport 5 million men, 4 million women and 2 million children.

Under their set of principles, these folks would have to register with the government, pass a background check, and pay a fine and back taxes. They would then get "probationary legal status."

They could not apply for green cards for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship, until certain border enforcement measures were in place – such as the long overdue entry-exit system that tracks whether visitors temporarily here for tourism, business or schooling have left the country at the expiration of their visas.

They would then go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants.

Children brought illegally to the United States, the so-called "DREAMers," would have a different path to citizenship – as would agricultural workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has made immigration the first and top priority bill of the new session, numbered S. 1. This is a promising start. If the House and Senate can find common ground on immigration, that could lay the groundwork for successes in addressing other pressing national needs.

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