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Immigration reform school [Commentary]

Time for a brutal assessment regarding the state of immigration reform in America. Extreme partisans on both sides of the aisle — you will not like what you read over the next two minutes. Hopefully, the rest of you will chew on it for a bit.

First, the GOP. The upside here is that a majority of Republicans seem to have at least some appreciation for the rule of law. In the context of immigration reform, this instinct plays out in a desire to enforce the law — just like every other civilized country in the world, especially Mexico.

Yet Republicans have fallen short of the mark. We love to praise Ronald Reagan but conveniently forget that he signed a real amnesty bill. You can look it up: Almost three million illegal immigrants were made legal under his watch.

Moreover, some of our more zealous candidates tend to advocate positions that might play well in primaries but are wholly unenforceable in real life. The proposal to round up as many as 14 million "undocumented" foreigners prior to consideration of immigration reform fits here. And I won't get into how such an untenable proposal sounds to people of good faith (particularly independents) who want viable solutions to our border problems.

And then there are the Democrats. The Party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy now laughs out loud whenever the issue of border security is introduced. In states like Maryland, successful Democrats run on platforms that offer sanctuary status — a public position that assures people in the country illegally that the state is not serious about enforcing its laws.

Some of you more naive types might think that such an "open borders" policy would constitute an "unforced error" in a time of terror, but far from it. In reliably blue states, an open invitation to flaunt the law carries no adverse consequences. In fact, all the better to run up the score with Hispanic voters. You might have noticed the sitting U.S. president is of this ilk. Recall his cynical "maybe [the Republicans] need a moat; maybe they'll need alligators" line about border security from 2011. The fact that such unserious rhetoric actually works should remind everyone how far left a once proud blue collar party has digressed.

Unfortunately, the respective parties have left us between a rock and a hard place. The Republicans are deathly afraid, and the Democrats don't really care. What to do?

Herewith, a plan:

First, hire as many additional border agents as needed to get the job done. Once personnel needs are met, complete fencing where it makes sense (remember fences work — just ask any West Bank Israeli). Then, utilize state-of-the-art drone technology to police difficult to defend places along the border. Finally, sit down with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico to reiterate why America is getting as serious about border control as … Mexico. Play hardball if required, but President Nieto's active cooperation is a necessary element of southern border security.

Once objective, quantifiable security measures are up and running, serious people from both sides of the aisle can get down to work. Serious in this context means arriving at a working definition of "amnesty."

My view is to promote a "path to legality" for those who are here illegally but possess a clean criminal record, marketable job skills, at least some proficiency in English and owe no back taxes. An additional military or public service commitment could be added here as well.

Still, the path will be narrow. These prerequisites mean the individual will become a legal, non-citizen, guest worker for a period of years. Welfare benefits will not be available, but the promise of a legal residency should help bring the "hidden millions" out from the shadows.

Important note: The politically thorny issue of ultimate citizenship can be worked out during negotiations. Some will insist that those who arrived illegally should never be rewarded with full citizenship. Others will offer that a fresh beginning requires a real shot at full legal status. Regardless of where one falls on this issue, it should be beyond question that those who followed legal process and did the right thing should be first in line for citizenship.

One last point. The humanitarian crisis of 2014 must be solved as soon as possible. Children who have a credible claim of persecution in their home country should be allowed to stay just like any other person seeking asylum. The remainder should be returned to their parents. Money required to fund both policies should be appropriated, quickly.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is

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