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Sensible steps toward immigration reform

Bipartisan group tries practical, if incomplete, attempt at fixes

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has taken a big step toward moving the country from passionate to pragmatic on immigration reform. To turn that effort into meaningful legislation, Congress will need even more of that practical thinking.

The group of eight lawmakers – including S.C. Republican Lindsey Graham – unveiled a four-page framework Monday that offers a sensible balance of improved immigration enforcement, a reasonable path to citizenship for immigrants, and a punitive price for that path. Put together, the principles make an important, practical acknowledgment – that the country must push past a “they’re breaking the law” mindset on illegal immigrants and realize that punishment alone is not a fix.

Getting there required some additional pragmatism from Republicans, who finally are realizing the political cost of the harsh immigration laws their party has proposed and passed in several states. “Look at the last election,” said John McCain, a member of the senatorial group. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote.” If that seems a cynical reason to finally attempt an immigration fix, well, reform advocates shouldn’t be picky. Sometimes, good policy gets made in Washington for less than worthy reasons.

But for Monday’s principles to become good policy, Congress will have to overcome at least two potential problems with the senators’ blueprint. First is a proposed commission “of governors, attorneys general and community leaders living along the Southwest border” that will get to decide when the border is secure and the path toward citizenship can begin for immigrants. The bipartisan group didn’t say what criteria the commission should use to determine that completeness, or if a unanimous nod would be required. Lawmakers must craft legislation that will not allow Republicans to hold up the citizenship process by withholding their satisfaction indefinitely.

Also, Monday’s proposals would require illegal immigrants to pay a fine and back taxes to earn the probationary legal status that allows them to live and work in the U.S. and eventually become eligible for a green card. While some sort of penalty makes sense for those who crossed our borders illegally, a bill for thousands of dollars might cause illegal immigrants to decide the current broken system is preferable to taking part in the proposed fix. Better border enforcement might end up nudging those immigrants into the right choice, anyway, but legislation that acknowledges the prohibitive nature of an unaffordable penalty would help, too.

Of course, anti-immigration advocates will argue that illegal immigrants should be grateful to get even an opportunity for citizenship. But meaningful immigration reform is not about what some think “should be.” It’s about what is. On Monday, eight senators presented a reasonable version of that reality, one that looked past the anger and righteousness of the immigration debate and offered real ways to fix real problems. It’s a milestone proposal. It’s a good, sensible start.

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