Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Could this be the moment? After years of gridlock and legislative disappointment, policy makers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are laying the groundwork for immigration reform. The White House has been building a coalition, including labor, business and advocacy groups, to power a final push. Meanwhile, a bipartisan bloc in the U.S. Senate has begun to outline comprehensive changes that have proved elusive in years past.
Although common ground among Democrats and Republicans is otherwise limited, both parties have ample cause to put the immigration debate behind them. Democrats are eager to deliver on a long-delayed campaign promise; Republicans hope to shed a political liability and start fresh with the Hispanic and Asian voters who will increasingly decide elections.
The goals are well understood: a path to legalization -- at a minimum -- for about 11 million undocumented immigrants, eased restrictions on legal entry, and stronger enforcement of the law, including a vastly improved employment verification component.
Yet even mutual self-interest isn’t enough to ensure success in Washington. Given the polarized politics generally, and the dysfunction of the House of Representatives particularly, the Senate seems the place to forge a compromise. Support from a nucleus of Republican senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah, will be crucial to a deal.
There is already broad agreement -- even in the House -- on the need to ease legal immigration for highly skilled workers. By shutting out desperately needed people with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, restrictive U.S. policies are damaging competitiveness, undermining innovation and leaving gaps in the workforce.
Even with high U.S. unemployment, STEM jobs are going unfilled, in part because many qualified graduates of U.S. colleges are foreigners who are unable to obtain the requisite working papers. Microsoft has more than 6,000 job openings in the U.S., more than half of them in high-paying core technology areas.
Senators should begin by increasing the number of visas for highly skilled workers, along with green cards for permanent residents and work permits for spouses. If Republicans and Democrats can agree on such legislation, they can then build on that foundation, adding a Dream Act to provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants. If legislators find they can bear the weight of comprehensive reform, we will cheer. If the politics take them only halfway, they should build as much as they can now and revisit the most contentious issues later.
As a report released this week by the Migration Policy Institute documents, the U.S. has spent $186 billion on immigration enforcement over the past quarter century, with expenditures spiking in recent years. Last year, the report said, the Barack Obama administration spent a whopping $18 billion on enforcement -- more than it spent on all other law enforcement combined. The Border Patrol has doubled its personnel in the past seven years while investing heavily in technology.
Popular misconceptions and political rhetoric aside, illegal immigration has declined sharply even as the Obama administration has conducted a record number of deportations. Fewer efforts to cross the border illegally have led to a 53 percent decline in detentions since 2008. It’s time for the nation’s debate -- and its laws -- to change with the facts on the ground. With a brick-by-brick approach to reform, lawmakers can build not a wall, but a better nation.
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