Immigration reform — now


With the government shutdown concluded, the threat of a strike on Syria on the back burner, and no serious chance that the United States will default on its debts for at least three months or so, perhaps Congress can pull itself together and work on stalled legislation. It should begin by tackling comprehensive immigration reform.

Much of the heavy lifting on this controversial issue is done. This year, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that calls for allowing more high-skilled and low-skilled workers into the country, while also establishing a new guest-worker program that includes more protections for farm workers.

The bill would set out a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, but only after they paid fines and passed a background check, and after additional border security measures were put in place. It’s not a perfect plan, but it takes the kind of broad approach that is needed to restructure the dysfunctional system.

The GOP-led House has not signed on, opting instead for a piecemeal approach. Among the proposals waiting to reach the floor is an enforcement bill, known as the SAFE Act, which would for the first time designate as criminals all immigrants who are in the country illegally. It would allow states to enforce their own immigration laws.

Another bill would create a new guest-worker program that would likely please growers but leave farm laborers unprotected from abusive employers. Two other bills would expand the use of federal databases to verify the immigration status of new employees.

The two sides are far apart, but there is reason for hope after months of stalemate. In an effort to repair some of the political damage the GOP inflicted on itself during the shutdown, some House Republicans apparently are calling for action on immigration reform to win back moderate support.

If the House approved just one of its piecemeal bills, Senate and House negotiators could begin formally to reconcile their differences. If it goes that route, the House should pass its border security measure, the best of the bills introduced so far. But it’s unclear whether House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will allow any of the bills to move forward.

The current immigration system isn’t working for employers who rely on the low-wage labor that comes in over the border, or for the millions of immigrants who are stuck in the underground economy. A coalition of religious, law enforcement, and business leaders has called for a compromise.

Immigration reform can still be achieved, if Republican lawmakers will stop stalling, stop grandstanding, and get to work.