Bipartisanship -- if just for now

February 5, 2013 

With leadership from the president, both political parties and both houses of Congress, comprehensive immigration reform -- one of the most divisive issues in the nation for a generation -- appears to be on a fast track for approval.

Of course, that doesn't mean that grand plans offered back-to-back by a bipartisan group of senators and President Obama won't be sidetracked, as anything can happen in a politically polarized nation and on such a volatile subject. But the fact that Republicans and Democrats are in agreement that something has to be done, and that the two newly unveiled plans for immigration overall have similar objectives, it would be regrettable if Congress botched this opportunity.

Obviously influenced by presidential election results in November, in which Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, many Republican lawmakers have been less strident in their opposition to immigration reform. Perhaps the hottest of flash points has been any provision that even resembles a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

But proposals presented last week by the president and the "gang of eight" senators provide for a citizenship path, although with some different nuances. The Senate group includes four Republicans (John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) and four Democrats (Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado).

The senators' plan released Monday calls for illegal immigrants, before obtaining legal permanent residency or a green card, to register with the government, pass a background check, pay a fine and applicable taxes, learn English and get in line behind those already pursuing legal routes to citizenship.

Principles outlined Tuesday in Obama's proposal are similar, but under the president's plan illegal immigrants granted work permits would be able to apply for a green card sooner, thus putting them on a somewhat quicker path to citizenship.

It's difficult to know how workable either proposal would be, considering the financial costs to the illegal applicant and the possibility of the individual remaining in a constant holding pattern while awaiting the opportunity for full citizenship. But for most, to be free to work and remain in the country legally will take them out of the shadows even though some immigration advocates suggest such a status will create a permanent "second-class citizen."

The president insists that for any comprehensive plan to work, "we've got to bring our legal immigration system into the 21st century because it no longer reflects the realities of our time. For example, if you are a citizen, you shouldn't have to wait years before your family is able to join you in America."

Visas for same-sex partners could be applied for by citizens and residents under Obama's proposal, something likely to be opposed by many conservatives in Congress.

Other provisions of the proposals include: more border security; an employment verification system and harsher penalties for employers who knowingly hire an illegal immigrant; provisional legal status for agriculture workers and those who entered the U.S. illegally as children; and expanding visas and issuing green cards to foreigners who earn graduate degrees in certain fields in this country.

The Senate is expected to hold its first hearing in about two weeks, with legislation introduced as early as March, according to McClatchy Newspapers.

The comprehensive approach is gaining widespread support from a cross-section of business, educational and religious leaders and organizations.

There will be those in Congress who will resist any path-to-citizenship proposal because they regard it as amnesty, something many have promised never to support. There is no way to have "common sense" or true comprehensive reform without addressing the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

As the president reminded the nation in his speech Tuesday from Las Vegas, those who view the issue as "us" against "them" often "forget that most of 'us' used to be 'them.'"

-- Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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