EDITORIAL: Pass the immigration bill

The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to begin formal debate on the first immigration overhaul since 1986. It is past time to create a new system that reflects our history as an immigrant nation and the needs of our changing economy.

After years of contentious debate, the Senate's bill (S. 744) is a bipartisan effort that will improve our immigration system. But the consensus package is fragile, and passage is by no means sure.

The bill begins with border security. Twenty years ago, we had 3,500 Border Patrol agents at the southern border; today, more than 18,500. We have 651 miles of fencing. S. 744 would do more.

The most important piece of the bill, however, restructures legal immigration paths -- so people don't have to sneak across the border to join family or overstay visitor visas to work.

Contrary to what some critics have said, the bill maintains a strong emphasis on family. The number of spouses and minor children of permanent residents would not be capped -- ending years-long waits in the green card backlog.

True, brothers and sisters of citizens and married children over 30 after 2018 no longer could get family-based green cards. They would have to pursue other avenues, emphasizing skills and employment.

An expanded employment-based visa pool would eliminate country-specific limits, which have caused enormous backlogs for applicants from countries like China and India. Caps also would be eliminated for the highest skilled and those with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

A new "merit-based" visa would give points for education, employment, occupation, civic involvement, English proficiency, family ties and age.

In the past, low-skilled legal immigration had been temporary and short-term (less than a year). The Senate bill for the first time would allow longer-term stays.

What to do about 11 million people who came to this country illegally? Under S. 744, they could apply to be "registered provisional immigrants" if they paid taxes and penalties and passed background checks. After 10 years, they could apply for a green card and three years after that, for citizenship.

Important for California, children brought illegally by their parents (so-called DREAM Act kids) and agricultural workers would have accelerated tracks.

S. 744 is a reasonable, not perfect bill that senators should pass by the July Fourth recess.