Bring undocumented out of the shadows

If you think elections don't matter, check out what happened in the Senate last week. A bipartisan group unveiled a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who are in this country illegally.

The proposal is part of a long awaited package of immigration reforms.

The motive for Republicans to end their opposition is political. "Look at the last election," explained Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who cited Hispanic voters' overwhelming rejection of the GOP as one reason he now supports letting undocumented workers and their children come out of the shadows, and why other Republicans should too.

Neither of Kentucky's senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul, were part of the eight-member bipartisan group that developed the legislation.

But that doesn't mean Kentuckians don't have a big stake in what happens.

Kentucky agriculture, including the Thoroughbred industry, depends heavily on immigrant labor.

The state Chamber of Commerce wants a comprehensive national approach rather than a patchwork of state laws.

And Kentucky is home to thousands of undocumented immigrants, including many who came to this country as children. They work in our factories and farms, build our houses, go to school, pay taxes, but are in such a state of limbo they can't even get driver's licenses.

The 800-plus page bill proposed by McCain and seven others, including Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was the product of negotiations by business and labor.

No one is claiming it's perfect or won't be changed.

But this is the beginning of a serious discussion; that makes it a major development and one worth applauding.

Among the questions that are sure to be debated:

■ Whether 13 years is too long to wait for citizenship and the requirements to gain citizenship are too burdensome?

■ Whether requiring all employers to use the E-verify system within five years to ascertain employees' immigration status would be worth the $2.7 billion annual cost to employers estimated by a Bloomberg study or the threat to civil liberties that worries some?

Neither of those questions will be insurmountable if lawmakers work in good faith.

The debate already seems to have crossed an important threshold — a recognition that it's unrealistic to think the government could, or should, deport 11 million people.

The "dreamers," non-citizens who were brought to this country as children, would be able to attain citizenship in five years under the proposal.

It's important that families, both traditional and non-traditional, be allowed to remain together while negotiating their paths to citizenship.

The bill would create a new guest-worker visa for jobs requiring less than a bachelor's degree, reform the high-skilled visa system and replace current H-2A visa systems with an Agriculture Worker Program that creates a process for agricultural workers to gain legal status through a new "blue card" temporary residency program.

The provisions could slow the brain drain when engineers and other professionals are educated here then forced out of the U.S.

Bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows and into the mainstream will protect them from exploitation and protect U.S. workers from having to compete with underpaid immigrants.

Reforming immigration will require a delicate balancing of interests, but it's time to do it.