The nation's capital is awash with ideas about how to fix America's immigration policy. The sudden ferment on this issue, which was largely dormant since efforts at comprehensive reform were torpedoed five years ago, is as welcome as it is overdue. The growing consensus on both sides of the political aisle that something needs to be done should not be squandered, for such opportunities are rare and fleeting.
Some policy makers are calling for piecemeal changes—such as issuing visas for high-skilled workers and investors, or conferring legal status on immigrants who were illegally brought into the country as children. Congress should avoid such quick fixes and commit itself instead to comprehensive immigration reform.
In some conservative circles, the word "comprehensive" in the context of immigration reform is an epithet—a code word for amnesty. People who oppose such reform declare that securing the United States border must come before moving toward broader reform.
Such an approach is shortsighted and self-defeating. Border security is inextricably intertwined with other aspects of immigration policy. The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make sure that we have a fair and workable system of legal immigration. The current immigration system is neither.
The immigration system is like a jigsaw puzzle. If one or more pieces are out of whack, the puzzle makes no sense. To fix the system, Congress must make sure all of the pieces fit together, logically and snugly.
To do so, several realities must be faced squarely, including:
It is not law enforcement but the law itself that is broken. The nation has changed dramatically since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and that legislation has not held up well. It has been patched over so many times that it is hopelessly complex and incoherent. We need to start from scratch.
The nature of the border-security problem has evolved. The only tried-and-true method of reducing illegal immigration is a bad economy. Thus, with a dismal American economy and an improving Mexican one, the net immigration from Mexico is now zero: As many Mexicans are leaving the U.S. as are entering it.
The far greater border-security threat is paramilitaristic drug cartels that often are also involved in human smuggling, increasingly from Central American countries. The U.S. needs to coordinate closely with Mexico and focus its resources on defeating the cartels. The nation also needs to continue harnessing technology to identify risky foreign visitors and swiftly deport those who commit crimes or overstay their visas.
The driver of immigration policy is "chain migration." Since the 1960s, the vast majority of legal immigrants have come pursuant to a very broad definition of "family reunification"—which includes not only spouses and minor children but parents and siblings. Family preferences account for two-thirds of all legal immigrants, crowding out work-based immigration and placing increased pressure on social services.
When extended family members obtain legal status, they too are entitled to family preferences. This chain migration does not promote the nation's economic interests.
There is no "line." Critics of comprehensive reform often argue that illegal immigrants should return to their native countries and wait in line like everyone else who wants to come to America. But unless they have relatives in the U.S. or can fit within the limited number of work-based visas, no line exists for such individuals.
For most aspiring immigrants, the only means of legal admission to this country is an annual "diversity lottery" that randomly awards visas to 55,000 foreigners. There are roughly 250 applicants for each visa every year. The absence of a meaningful avenue of access increases the pressure for illegal immigration.
The U.S. needs workers of all types. The birthrate in this country has fallen below the level necessary to sustain the population at the very time that millions of Americans are leaving the workforce and expecting retirement benefits. The nation needs energetic young workers to spur the economy and support an ever-increasing social-welfare burden.
The only alternatives to increased immigration are mounting debts or reduced social services. A practicable system of work-based immigration for both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants—a system that will include a path to citizenship—will help us meet workforce needs, prevent exportation of jobs to foreign countries and protect against the exploitation of workers.
America especially needs high-skill workers. The K-12 education system is not producing nearly enough graduates with the skills needed for a vibrant 21st-century economy. This country has attracted, and still does attract, the best and brightest from throughout the world to its universities and businesses. But once here, even the most talented students are not assured that they will receive visas enabling them to work following graduation, and high-skill workers and entrepreneurs have no sure path to citizenship.
Other nations—including Canada, New Zealand and even China—are luring away students, workers and entrepreneurs with more sensible and welcoming immigration policies. If we do not adapt, we will be increasingly unable to compete.
Amnesty promotes illegal immigration. The U.S. must find a fair way to deal with its 11 million illegal immigrants without sending the message that America's laws can be broken with impunity. Crossing the border illegally must have consequences. At the same time, we must recognize that children who were brought here illegally have committed no crime and in most instances know no other country.
Immigrants replenish the American spirit. Most immigrants come here to secure a better life for themselves and their families. They cherish the values of hard work, faith, family, enterprise and patriotism that have made this country great. Meanwhile, many who were lucky enough to have been born here have grown complacent or even disdainful of these values. America's immigration system should provide opportunities for people who share the country's core values to become citizens, thereby strengthening the nation as have countless immigrants have before them.
Despite a polarized polity, the country has a historic opportunity for bipartisan reform. It is time to seize the moment.
Mr. Bush, the Republican governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute. Their book, "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution," will be published in March by Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster.