A chance for immigration reform

Published Jan. 29, 2013

The immigration reform proposal unveiled Monday by a bipartisan group of senators including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offers the best hope in years that Congress finally will take action. Most significantly, it recognizes that 11 million illegal immigrants are not leaving and creates a path to citizenship for those who follow the rules. President Barack Obama is expected to embrace similar immigration goals today, and there ought to be plenty of room for consensus and legislation that can be signed into law this year.

The outlines of the Senate proposal are familiar. It would create a probation period for illegal immigrants who come forward, pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check. That would give them legal status until they can become permanent residents by completing other requirements, including demonstrating their work history and learning English and civics. While the details and time frames will be debated, the most encouraging development is that Rubio and his Republican colleagues are abandoning the GOP rhetoric that any path to citizenship is amnesty for lawbreakers.

The Senate framework incorporates important exceptions. It recognizes that younger illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should have a clearer path to citizenship. That fits well with Obama's executive order that granted legal status to members of that same group who have graduated high school or served in the military and have no criminal history, and with the more expansive Dream Act that Congress has failed to pass. It would benefit perhaps 100,000 or more younger Florida residents who have been attending our schools, contributing to our communities and considering themselves Floridians.

Other provisions also would benefit Florida. For example, a separate path to legal status would be created for agricultural workers who have been working illegally. Some informed estimates suggest the vast majority of field workers in Florida are illegal immigrants, and creating a straightforward path to becoming a legal farm worker would benefit the state's agriculture industry and ensure a more reliable work force.

As Rubio, Sen. John McCain and other Republicans behind the legislation sell the party's conservative base on immigration reform, they are careful to provide political cover. The proposal emphasizes that illegal immigrants would remain at the back of the line for green cards. It requires that border security be enhanced, even as illegal border crossings have declined, before clearing the path to citizenship. And it calls for a new employment verification system that businesses would use to ensure they are hiring legal workers. The challenge will be to work out the details of these conditions so that they satisfy enough conservatives without creating too many roadblocks to reaching the broader goals.

The sudden momentum for immigration reform is a direct result of the November election results. The anti-immigration rhetoric from Republicans did not play well, and Obama won re-election with 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. The Republican Party is re-examining itself, and Rubio has played a helpful role in advancing broad immigration reform and selling it to the conservative wing of the party. He should continue to be a voice of reason as the legislation is written, because there are any number of points where compromise could fall apart over the specifics.

Monday's announcement by the bipartisan group of senators was an important step, and Obama's speech today in Las Vegas should be another positive step toward immigration reform. The road will not be easy, and opponents will rise up as the details are hashed out. But the president and members of both parties in Congress should seize the moment and show voters that compromise is not dead in Washington.