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For all the remarkable accomplishments of the just-ended lame-duck Congress, one of its most notable disappointments was the defeat of the Dream Act for children of illegal immigrants. The measure would have given a path to citizenship to children who, through no fault of their own, were illegally brought into the country by their parents, provided they later served in the military or attended college. By rights, the act should have been passed in the same spirit of bipartisan cooperation that produced so many other year-end legislative successes.

The Dream Act's conditioning of legal status on military service or post-secondary education represented precisely the kind of reasonable compromise that allowed Congress to cobble together majorities for the tax-cut bill, for ending the don't ask, don't tell policy banning gays from serving openly in the military, for the New Start treaty and for free health care for first responders on 9/11. Creating a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants was not only the humane way to treat people who have spent their whole lives as Americans and know no other home, but also the smart thing for a nation that can ill afford to throw away their skills and talents or their willingness to contribute to society.

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Yet the measure failed to win passage in the Senate, and its opponents included both Democrats and Republicans. If that's any indication of how the next Congress is likely to deal with the issue, when Republicans will control the House and Democrats will enjoy a substantially smaller majority in the Senate, the battle over immigration reform is likely to get even uglier in coming years. For members of both parties, immigration has become the third rail of electoral politics, the kind of hot-button issue that crime or abortion used to be. They'd rather kill any measure, no matter how reasonable, just or beneficial to society, rather than risk the charge of somehow being "soft" of illegal immigrants.

House GOP lawmakers are already warning they intend to oppose any change in immigration policy that doesn't make things tougher for people who are in the country illegally, despite the fact that immigration is down and the Obama administration is already deporting record numbers of people with criminal records or who are deemed to be threats to public safety. That's hardly being "soft" on immigration. But GOP leaders want to go even further by giving local police departments — which are overtaxed as it is — more authority to identify and arrest illegal immigrants and aggressively go after companies that hire undocumented workers. Meanwhile, lawmakers like incoming GOP House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas insist any effort to create a path to legal residency is "pointless" until the country's borders are secured.

That's obviously a recipe for gridlock since it may well be impossible to completely seal the country off from all the people who are willing to risk their lives to come here. And it's based on the equally false premise of Mr. Smith that we "could free up millions of jobs for Americans and legal immigrants if we enforced our immigration laws against illegal workers." The vast majority of illegal immigrants work at jobs that pay so little and offer so few benefits that most Americans refuse to take them.

Even more importantly, Rep. Smith's plan says absolutely nothing about what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants who are already living in this country. Does he really believe that local police departments can round them all up for deportation — a transfer that, if put into effect, would be the largest mass movement of people in U.S. history? And where would they stay while awaiting return to their home countries — on reservations or in open-air prisons like the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II? That's the logical conclusion of all such schemes to deport millions of people, but we suspect no one really wants to go there.

The reality lawmakers like Mr. Smith conveniently ignore is that, one way or another, most of the illegal immigrants already in the country are not going anywhere. They're going to end up staying right here, and the only question will be whether they get to do so in a way that allows them to pay taxes on what they earn or whether they continue to live beholden to an underground economy that cheats them and the federal treasury of billions of dollars every year.

When it comes to the children who were actually at issue in the Dream Act, the issue is even starker. We are legally required to educate them through high school. Are we to throw away that investment by consigning them to menial labor or by chucking them back across the border?

Recognizing that reality has nothing to do with being "soft" on illegal immigrants but it has everything to do with finding ways of dealing with millions of people in our midst without violating the Constitution or the basic principles justice and fairness on which this country was built.

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