The immigration bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee has passed with bipartisan support and sent to the full Senate still faces many hurdles. But the legislation's broad goals of bringing nearly all of the 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows while strengthening the border and the U.S. economy remain intact. While imperfect, this is the nation's best chance in a generation to fix its broken immigration system. Republican senators such as Florida's Marco Rubio need to keep educating their colleagues and constituents about the bill's provisions and keep broadening support.
The bill is the nation's most ambitious effort yet to control its borders in a bid to win support from conservatives. It throws too much money and resources toward controlling a flow of illegal immigration that has trended downward for years, but that is the pragmatic trade-off for a path to citizenship. The legislation calls for spending $6.5 billion on new fencing and surveillance, thousands of extra customs agents and additional checkpoints along the border. The security plans would have to be in place before the clock started on legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants.
The Judiciary Committee worked in a bipartisan fashion to fight off amendments aimed at killing the bill or making it an empty promise. The 10-year timetable for lawful permanent residency and the three additional years for citizenship are still too long but better than no path to legal status at all. The fines, which could reach $2,000 and must be paid for immigrants to remain in the pipeline, should be reduced but are not ridiculous. And the decision by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, to hold off on his proposal to allow citizens to sponsor same-sex partners for permanent residency was prudent. Discrimination against gays serves no national interest and has no place in American policy. But the provision would turn away Republicans, particularly in the House. The issue needs to be addressed, but it should not be allowed to kill the broader bill.
Rubio has worked hard to sell the bill he helped draft to other conservatives, and the measure that came out of the Judiciary Committee gives him even more to sell. The bill includes tough triggers and new reporting requirements to ensure the nation is on track to harden the border. It calls for new techniques, including the use of biometrics technology, to track immigrants and includes money to speed up the prosecution of illegal border crossings. The bill also would help meet demand for foreign workers in both the high-tech and service industries, while protecting American jobs. It would force employers for the first time to verify that they are hiring lawful immigrants. And it would crack down on those who overstay their visas or who game the system by seeking to enter the United States as political prisoners or refugees.
House Republicans such as Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Richard Nugent of Brooksville and C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores should follow Rubio's lead and embrace the bill for what it would do — improve security, help meet the nation's labor needs, turn millions of new workers into taxpayers and bring order to the immigration system. These are the practical benefits that led even conservatives such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to vote for the bill in committee. This bill is not amnesty for illegal immigrants, and it moves no one to the front of the line for citizenship.
As the full Senate takes up the immigration legislation next month, senators and the public should keep their eye on the big picture. This is the best opportunity to pass comprehensive reform in a generation, and a better opportunity may not come around for another generation.