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The Immigration Saga Continues

President Obama and lawmakers of both parties have begun laying the groundwork for something that is supposed to be unachievable in Washington today: a bipartisan deal to solve a bitterly contentious, complicated problem in a big way.

The talk is of immigration reform, a once-in-a-generation overhaul of an outdated system that turns away too many skilled and eager workers, separates too many families and keeps too many millions of undocumented people at the edges of society, unable to get right with the law.

The outlines of reform have long been clear: more visas, a more secure border, better-regulated workplaces, more protections for workers’ rights and — the key to everything — legalization and eventual citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in limbo. The only thing missing is a deal.

Expecting Congress to overcome its paralysis is never a good bet these days. But optimists will note that on immigration, at least, leaders in both parties are taking great pains to say that they want to get something done. Mr. Obama has recently been repeating his broken promise to win reform. Senators are huddling and floating proposals; some Republicans, like Marco Rubio of Florida, are positioning themselves as reformers with vague but positive-sounding statements.

Senator Rubio has been out shopping his ideas: more visas for high-technology, professional and temporary agricultural workers, a national work-eligibility verification program and provisional legalization for the 11 million undocumented, who would not be granted permanent status until all other legal immigrants got their green cards.

Some of the 11 million could presumably become citizens one day, though Mr. Rubio has not said how that would work. If you force millions of people to wait at the end of a visa line that for some countries is already decades long, is that really a path to citizenship? Still, he rejects the mass-deportation, Arizona-style lunacy recently embraced by Republican leaders like Mitt Romney. For a party so prone to vilifying and criminalizing immigrants, that’s progress.

The hard-core immigration resisters, meanwhile, don’t seem to be as numerous or as loud, though there has been grumbling from some lawmakers who have said all along that legalizing 11 million can never happen until the border is secure.

Well, the border is secure. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute recently found that immigration enforcement, especially after 9/11, has had a significant effect in curbing the illegal border flow to essentially zero. This makes sense, since the institute’s report shows that the federal government now spends more to enforce immigration laws than on all its other criminal law-enforcement agencies combined.

Though the Republicans may have lost a talking point on border security, they have won the enforcement argument. Even Mr. Obama agrees with their approach, having greatly expanded his predecessors’ aggressive enforcement programs and pushed deportations to record levels.

So now it’s time for the other parts of the equation — a smoother, smarter immigration flow, and legalization with citizenship. Some Republicans are urging a piecemeal approach, adding layers of enforcement and some new visa programs, but that is merely a way of putting off solving the problem of the 11 million. We hope the G.O.P. leaders will move away from that dead-end.

Evangelical leaders, business groups, labor unions and the well-organized young advocates known as Dreamers are ready to urge on deal makers in Congress. Hope is running high. Our big fear is that Mr. Obama and the Republicans are merely getting ready to blame each other if a deal blows up, setting back reform several more years.

But some things argue against pessimism: the resounding election message, pressure from Americans who want the immigration system fixed, and the possibility that enough Congressional Republicans want to begin winning back the Latino vote that so many in their party have been working so hard to drive way.

A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 20, 2013, on page SR10


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