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Originally published February 2, 2013 at 4:00 PM | Page modified February 4, 2013 at 7:32 AM

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Editorial: Now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform

A deeply unpopular Congress has a chance to prove it can function by fixing our nation’s failed immigration policies.

Seattle Times Editorial

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MOMENTUM finally is building for comprehensive immigration reform.

Last week, eight Republican and Democratic U.S. senators unveiled a pragmatic set of principles. President Obama urged them to move forward. A second bipartisan group of senators joined in with a plan to ensure enough highly skilled labor for high-tech companies like Microsoft.

Senators as different as New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Florida Republican Marco Rubio are unlikely allies on the importance of two basic concepts: enforcement of current laws, including securing the borders, and the need to identify a clear path for immigrants to earn citizenship.

Lawmakers disagree on whether the latter should be contingent upon the former, but those details can be worked out in the months ahead.

About 11 million immigrants now live illegally throughout the United States. A 2010 Pew study estimates 230,000 are in Washington state. Some sneak past our borders. Nearly half enter legally but overstay their visas.

Old thinking that they should be rounded up and sent back to their native countries is losing traction. After Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the last election, more key Republicans seem ready to cooperate.

Deportation has reached record levels, but a mass exodus is both unlikely and detrimental to the U.S. economy. People without legal authority to be in the U.S. perform jobs Americans often are unable or unwilling to do in the service and agriculture industries.

Immigrant labor isn’t relegated to the fields, either. Bright minds from abroad have been the driving force behind some of the most recognizable U.S.-based brands on the planet, including Google and Yahoo.

A final deal should encompass concepts supported by members of both major parties and the president. Among them:

Create a path to legal status and citizenship. This would include background checks, fines and back taxes for those not in the U.S. legally.

These people could work, learn English and earn probationary status while they get in the back of the line for citizenship.

The bipartisan Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has languished in Congress since 2001. Time to recognize children of illegal immigrants who have demonstrated good moral character.

These DREAM-ers were brought here as children through no fault of their own. For many, the U.S. is the only home they know. Allow them to attend universities, join the military and become productive citizens.

Lift the cap on H-1B visas and extend green cards to fill a growing shortage of high-skilled workers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Redmond-based Microsoft has been pushing for this since the fall.

Lawmakers also support the software company’s idea of using extra revenue from visa fees to fund STEM education so American citizens will be able to fill more of these jobs in the future.

Ease rules so agricultural employers can hire workers from outside the country when enough U.S. workers are not available.

Illegal immigrants play a critical role in agriculture, making up a quarter to half of the nation’s farm-labor force. Washington’s producers have sometimes struggled in recent years to find enough workers.

Ensure that a reliable electronic employment-verification system is in place that helps employers guarantee they are hiring legal workers and curbs the flow of undocumented workers in the future.

Prepare for a long and bumpy road to immigration reform. But also recognize the significance of this moment.

For once, lawmakers are headed down a bipartisan path together on one of the biggest issues of our time.

They must not slow down.

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