President Barack Obama made two points worth remembering Tuesday as the Senate opened its debate on immigration reform. First, the immigration system is hopelessly broken, and living in denial doesn't serve the interests of families, American workers, law enforcement or the nation's long-term economic needs. Second, any new process for bringing the 11 million illegal immigrants into the open and on a path to citizenship requires a balancing act and plenty of compromise. Everyone needs to keep these realities in mind as Congress takes up the bill this summer.
The president didn't set any markers, choosing instead to present a united front by hosting the bill's supporters from labor, business, police and other groups and by framing a practical case for moving illegal immigrants out of the shadows. That tack gives the president the negotiating room he will need as the legislation hopefully moves out of the Senate with significant bipartisan support into an even tougher environment in the House. It also enables Obama to focus attention at the outset on the broader imperative for meaningful reform.
The president sent the right message by underscoring a sense of urgency and by warning that there are limits to compromise if the legislation is to offer more than false hope to illegal immigrants eager to do what's necessary to become American citizens. While Obama noted that the Senate bill isn't perfect, it does amount to the biggest investment in border control in the nation's history. The measure commits billions of additional dollars for fencing, surveillance, border patrols and other security spending. Tougher security plans would have to be in place before the clock started on the 13-year process for illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. And illegal immigrants would have to pay fines and back taxes, stay out of legal trouble and learn English to become American citizens.
As one of the authors of the bill, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has helped sell his conservative colleagues and supporters on the importance of reform. But eventually he is going to have to stop appeasing them with more restrictions and become a full-throated supporter of the legislation. Rubio also needs to fight poison pills such as an amendment that Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is considering that would require an airtight border control system. That is unrealistic and overlooks the real progress America has made in securing its border. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's complaints Tuesday about the bill's "serious flaws" in border security and other areas underscore the challenges ahead in producing meaningful legislation that can win bipartisan support.
The president put the spotlight on the big picture, and the Senate should avoid weakening the legislation that passed the Judiciary Committee. This is only the first act, to be followed by the House passing a more conservative version and negotiations over a final product. Only a balanced bill can improve security, modernize the immigration system and create a fair path to citizenship that is neither amnesty nor impossible to navigate.