Is our nation's intractable illegal immigration problem finally, at long last, coming to an end? Of course not. But we haven't seen indications of meaningful action from Washington this promising in a generation -- and possibly ever.
That might seem like a mouthful of hyperbole, but how might one better characterize a near-matching set of proposals -- similarly pragmatic plans from President Obama and an ad hoc U.S. Senate committee -- that just three months ago would have been unthinkable in their agreement?
Obama unveiled a comprehensive plan to address the status of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants Tuesday in Las Vegas. It's a plan remarkable in its overall resemblance to the plan unveiled Monday by the bipartisan group of senators, including the man with perhaps the most cross-aisle credibility in the nation on this issue, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
"I'm here today," Obama said in announcing his proposal, "because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform."
The day for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform was long ago, of course, but it only became politically possible after Latino voters turned out decisively for the president last November. Funny how previously unmanageable issues can be managed in the first weeks of a president's second term with national elections in the rearview mirror and the forthcoming stakes increasingly evident as the two parties look ahead.
Both Obama and the group of eight senators have outlined a more direct path to citizenship for many (but not all) illegal immigrants. Both plans tighten border security, toughen the employment verification system and establish a probationary legal status. Applicants would be required to register with the government, undergo a background check, and pay back taxes and a fine. Illegals who have criminal records that go beyond immigration law violations would be deported.
The primary difference between the two proposals is that the senators' plan requires that the U.S. border with Mexico be declared secure before anyone starts distributing citizenship papers. That sounds good in theory. In practice, the 1,969-mile border -- the most frequently crossed international border in the world -- is so vast and foreboding that impenetrability would take decades to achieve, if ever. It can and must be further fortified, however, and both plans specify that that be done.
But progress has already been made at the border: According to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers more than doubled from 10,000 to 21,000 between 2004 and 2012. The portion of the border that has come under "operational control" increased by an average of 126 miles per year between 2005 and 2010. And illegal immigration is way down, although the struggling U.S. economy is a big reason.
Among the proposed solutions we've heard over the past decade, deportation is the least realistic and most expensive with regard to its impact on the economy and immigrant families. The best way to get a handle on who is here illegally -- and isn't that one of the primary objectives of reform? -- is to grant some form of limited amnesty. Many Republicans are now on board with that previously dirty word. Now is the time to accept reality and act.