The immigration bill put forward by a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday is a solid start toward creating an eventual path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants who already are quietly part of the daily fabric of many American communities. The legislation recognizes the need to balance border security and the rule of law with the reality and value of assimilating a huge population that is not leaving and has long contributed to this nation's economy. Sen. Marco Rubio and other border state Republicans have been instrumental in fashioning a good starting point for debate. They must remain focused on the overarching purpose of the bill as partisans and advocates on all sides pick apart the legislation as it moves through Congress.
At 844 pages long, the bill's length and sweep reflects the complexity and political nature of addressing how to both secure the border and bring out of the shadows the foreign-born residents who are here illegally. The Senate bill takes a compromise approach, offering immigrants a legal path to remain here and ultimately apply for permanent residency and citizenship, in exchange for tighter border controls and visa requirements that are tailored to promote the domestic economy and protect American workers.
The bill calls for the federal government to harden the U.S.-Mexico border with additional law enforcement personnel, unmanned aerial drones, fences and other tools, with the goal of vastly expanding surveillance and ground security in areas where large numbers of illegal immigrants cross the border. The government would have six months to develop the tougher security plan; after that, illegal immigrants could apply almost immediately for temporary legal protection. Those who entered the country prior to Jan. 1, 2012, pay fees and back taxes and pass a criminal background check could seek status as "Registered Provisional Immigrants," a step that could lead to legal residency in 10 years and citizenship in 13.
The legislation, though, attaches several security-related triggers to that timetable. The government would not process applications for temporary legal status until the Department of Homeland Security submits the border improvement plan to Congress. New legal protections would not kick in until the plan for 24/7 surveillance and added security in high-traffic areas on the border was "substantially operational." And the federal government would have to put in place new passenger tracking controls at the nation's airports and sea ports and implement a mandatory system for employers to verify the immigration status of job-seekers.
This combination of carrot and stick will be required of any legislation to have a chance in Congress. The long lead time for obtaining permanent residency, though, is excessive. And Congress has a responsibility to provide the money for tougher border control, the processing of residency applications and other measures if meeting the security benchmarks in the bill are the basis for starting the clock on the legalization process.
But the bill offers a reasonable framework for kicking off the debate on immigration reform. It is comprehensive in scope, and forward-looking in addressing both the porous border and the public costs of sanctioning an underground economy. And the shift toward a "merit-based" visa system could have twin benefits by attracting foreign talent and changing American attitudes on the contributions immigrants can make.
The compromise bill moves the discussion away from the choice between amnesty and the unrealistic notion of deporting 11 million people. It acknowledges that a long-term solution requires give and take on both sides. And it sends the signal that it's time for the nation to act. Rubio has led on this issue as one of the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight. He needs to bring along more conservatives and hold strong against the extreme tea party followers who refuse to accept reality and work toward consensus.