Out of the shadows


President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators have offered separate, encouraging proposals for a compromise on immigration reform. There is no further excuse for Washington’s failure to provide a fair and orderly path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who seek to earn the privilege of becoming Americans. The President and Congress also must improve the legal process of admitting other immigrants whose skills the nation’s economy needs.

The President, in a speech last week, outlined a framework for comprehensive reform: Border security must be strengthened. Employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers must be punished, while those who seek to hire employees legally will have access to a national system to verify immigrants’ work status. Immigrants here on visas must be made to go home when they are supposed to.

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The nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants must earn the right to citizenship by paying a financial penalty for breaking the law, passing criminal-background and national-security checks, and learning English. They properly would have to go to the back of the citizenship line, although they could live and work here legally in the meantime.

At the same time, the system of legal immigration must be streamlined, and case backlogs and excessive restrictions cleared away, so that it works better and faster for everyone. Young people whose parents brought them to this country should be allowed to become citizens more quickly by serving in the Armed Forces or getting a college degree.

The Senate plan largely embodies these principles. Getting it through Congress will require compromise between the parties, and with the White House, that has not been prevalent in recent years. Now, though, Mr. Obama and lawmakers seem to be on the same page.

Democrats are likely to chafe at Republican demands for tougher enforcement — more barriers, more Border Patrol agents, even monitoring by unmanned drones — along the U.S.-Mexican border, where security has increased and illegal immigration has decreased. These items are likely to be the price of GOP support.

It is unrealistic, though, to insist that other aspects of immigration reform must await the achievement of an absolutely impenetrable border. That excuse could cause the path to citizenship — which often is already decades long — to recede to the point it becomes invisible, and make a cynical mockery of the promise of meaningful change.

While undocumented immigrants are the focus of the reform legislation, other issues also demand attention. The nation’s obsolete system of granting visas too often discourages entrepreneurs, high-tech workers, and foreign students educated at American universities who have much to offer this country. Accommodating their talents and energy deserves as much attention as the need to reunite families.

The reform package also would be improved if it included a strong and flexible guest-worker program. Such a program would set guidelines enabling immigrants to work in this country legally, mostly in low-skilled jobs on farms, even if they do not want to live here.

Some nativist Republican lawmakers still will try to block any immigration reform effort with phony cries of “amnesty.” But voters, both Latinos and many others, made clear last November that they are tired of such obstructionism.

Republicans who want to echo Mitt Romney’s ludicrous demand that undocumented immigrants who have built lives in this country must “self-deport” are welcome to join him in political oblivion. The President should not hesitate to offer his own bill if the Senate plan does not make prompt progress.

At the same time, organized labor and its Democratic allies in Congress must not be allowed to block reform legislation out of a perceived threat to the jobs of some union members.

Immigration is not the hot-button issue in Ohio and Michigan that it is in states along American’s southern border. But this region, as well as the rest of the country, would benefit from the overhaul of a broken immigration system, affirming this nation’s ideals of citizenship and strengthening the economy. It’s time for the President and Congress to deliver.