Editorial Board

The End of the Immigration Debate

As usual, Washington trails the American public in its assessment of (and solution to) a problem.

The immigration battle is over. Sure, the political contest rages on in Washington, with House Republican leaders and their business backers seeking to wear down conservative opponents of reform legislation. But in the nation at large, the debate over immigration is largely settled -- almost shockingly so.

The U.S. has long been a nation of immigrants united in resistance to immigration. Even in 1999, with an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent and an economy inflated by an Internet bubble, a Gallup poll found only 10 percent of Americans thought more immigration should be allowed, while 44 percent wanted less. When Gallup asked that question last July -- it has been asking it for almost 50 years -- a record 23 percent supported more immigration and another 40 percent supported maintaining the current level. Only 35 percent wanted a decrease.

What's behind this trend, which is reflected by other surveys? Here's a theory: As the U.S. has grown more cosmopolitan, it has increasingly embraced diversity. The ascent of gay rights is one example; greater racial, ethnic and international tolerance is another. The foreign-born population of the U.S., at almost 40 million, is higher now in percentage terms than at any time since 1920. These neighbors leave a mark that no amount of nostalgia can expunge.

A CNN poll shows 54 percent of Americans support legalization for "illegal immigrants who have jobs," with 41 percent opposed. Support soars to 81 percent for a path to citizenship for "illegal immigrants who have been in this country for a number of years, hold a job, speak English and are willing to pay any back taxes they owe."

It's not certain that Americans' newfound embrace of immigrants marks a cultural tipping point. Nor can it be said what effect an economic recovery -- and increased immigration from Mexico, which fell drastically during the recession -- might have on the attitudes of native-born Americans.

Whatever the cause for this change in sentiment, this much is clear: Undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., who number about 11 million, will be legalized. Many of them, and almost certainly their children, will become U.S. citizens.

The drama playing out in Washington may delay that eventuality, but the minority of legislators standing in the doorway will not stop it. The economic logic of immigration reform is clear, as is the moral case. Even opponents of the current reform legislation agree that the system as it now stands is broken.

For some, the immigration battle is a proxy for a larger cultural fight. That fight has ended. As with gay rights, Washington is trailing the American public's open-hearted attitude -- as well as its pragmatic impulse to solve a problem. Sooner, rather than later, Washington will come around.