Heed immigration logic

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is amember of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that created the immigration legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In this Nov. 27, 2012, file photo Senate Armed Services Committee members, Sen. Graaham, foreground, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is often accused — usually unfairly — of being a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only). His critics on the right are particularly agitated about the senator’s support, past and present, for comprehensive immigration reform.

But as a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that created the immigration legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Graham’s in good conservative company with first-year Sen. Jeff Flake. During his six U.S. House terms, Mr. Flake earned a reputation as a principled and unrelenting fiscal hawk.

Sens. Flake, Graham and Utah’s Orrin Hatch were the three Republicans who voted Tuesday to advance the immigration bill from the committee to the Senate floor for debate. The panel’s 13-5 margin included all 10 Democrats voting for it and five Republicans against it.

Opponents charge that it doesn’t go far enough to assure border security before providing a “pathway to citizenship” for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Sen. Flake, who has had a front-row seat on immigration problems in his border state, has repeatedly acknowledged that legitimate security concern. But as he wrote in an op-ed earlier this year:

“Fortunately, the federal government has a model of what a secure border looks like. In the Yuma Sector, spanning 126 miles of the border, we have operational control, meaning that if someone attempts to cross the border, there’s a reasonable expectation they will be apprehended. However, in the Tucson Sector, which is responsible for 262 miles of the border, we have nothing close to operational control.”

Thus, the challenge is to apply what has worked in the Yuma Sector to the entire border with Mexico. Then, as Sen. Flake wrote, illegal immigrants can “begin the arduous, albeit fair, process of applying for citizenship.”

As for the overwrought cries of “amnesty” from the bill’s opponents, Sen. Flake pointed out: “To gain legal status and be given a shot at citizenship under the Gang of Eight’s framework, illegal immigrants must — among other penalties — pay fines, undergo background checks, and get in line behind those who are already in the legal immigration process.”

So as Sen. Flake’s example shows, a bona fide conservative can back a balanced immigration reform bill. The Republicans who control the House should keep that in mind as the legislative process continues.

Blocking this bill would simply maintain the status quo of a broken immigration system. How would that help secure the border?

During the Judiciary Committee’s considerations, Sen. Graham added an amendment requiring extra background checks for those applying for entry from nations that Homeland Security and the State Department deem national security threats.

An amendment from Sen. Hatch gives U.S. companies a more efficient path to hiring high-skilled foreign workers.

Sen. Flake said Tuesday: “Allowing this bill to be considered with a full and open amendment process significantly strengthened the legislation. Considering the bill on the Senate floor in the same way will make it stronger still.”

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the panel’s ranking Republican, voted against the bill.

Still, he said Tuesday that the “very fair” debate the committee held on it “does improve its chances.”

And that improves the chances of finally enacting overdue — and effective — immigration reform.