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Promising, fragile immigration reform

A Senate immigration proposal unveiled this week is a delicate, dizzying blend of competing reform philosophies, somehow coexisting in a piece of bipartisan legislative craftsmanship. And that’s just the 17-page outline, released to the public on Tuesday.

The full, 844-page bill, filed in the Senate early Wednesday, is a testament to the political and practical complexities of immigration reform. The legislation is the first since a failed 2007 Senate effort, and it strikes a tenuous balance between the starkly differing approaches to reform. The bipartisan group of eight senators should be applauded for even reaching this difficult point.

To get here, the bill offers each side some core satisfaction. Conservatives, who believe that illegal immigration is an enforcement problem, get $6.5 billion over 10 years to tighten security along the southern border. They also get enforcement triggers that must kick in before undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can move on a path toward citizenship.

That pathway was critical to progressives, who are cheering the bill’s provision that undocumented immigrants would be granted a pre-citizenship status that allows them to be in the U.S. legally. Those immigrants would have to pass a background check and have a clean record, but the granting of legal status means they can work and travel without the ever-present fear of the next traffic stop.

The bill also tackles critical, structural immigration issues, such as the inadequate number of visas offered to foreign engineers and scientists coveted by U.S. companies. It includes proposals to extend the hundreds of thousands of visas for the low-income workers who help sustain U.S. agribusiness.

All of which could lead to a workable immigration system, so long as Republicans don’t kill it by demanding more punitive measures for immigrants here illegally. The bill as is gives those immigrants a steep hill to climb in both cost and time spent becoming a U.S. citizen. Immigrants, many of them in low-income jobs, would have to pay up to $2,000 in fines and fees. They won’t be able to apply for citizenship for 13 years.

Yes, undocumented immigrants should face a penalty for crossing our borders illegally, but if the goal of reform is to lessen the threat that illegal immigration imposes on our economy and country, that reform shouldn’t discourage those immigrants from wanting to sign up and be registered.

For now, it doesn’t. Armando Bellmas, spokesman for the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, told the editorial board Wednesday that among the groups of undocumented immigrants his organization helps, most would jump at the chance to gain citizenship and lose the fear of deportation. Bellmas was especially encouraged by a provision that would allow some immigrants who were previously deported to rejoin their spouses and children here.

Such progress could be lost in the upcoming debate on the legislation. The danger of a bill so complex and dependent on compromise is that tugging at one string could unravel the whole thing, and already the Washington Post is reporting that Republicans are plotting to introduce “poison pill” amendments that would break apart the fragile bipartisan group that crafted the plan.

We hope the Senate – and eventually the U.S. House – will remember that what brought that group together was a recognition that something had to be done. Sabotaging the bill would leave us where we started, with a broken immigration system that hurts many and helps few.

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