There are elements of the immigration reform debate that are complicated. But the three questions at the center of it are quite simple.
-- Did the 11 million illegal immigrants who are currently in the United States do something wrong?
-- If we can agree that they did, shouldn't they have to acknowledge the wrongdoing and make amends?
-- And, if they are allowed to remain in the United States legally, isn't it only fair that they "go to the back of the line" because millions of folks are playing by the rules and trying to enter the country the right way?
These are the questions that vex the "Gang of Eight" -- a bipartisan group of senators trying to cobble together an immigration reform bill that gives illegal immigrants the chance at a better life without giving away too much. The senators seem to think that "13" is their lucky number. According to media reports, they would give illegal immigrants probationary legal status right away, with the chance of earning a green card in 10 years and U.S. citizenship in another three years. That's 13 years to go from "illegal immigrant" to "U.S. citizen." About right.
Unfortunately, in this debate, simple questions do not always have simple answers.
Some illegal immigrants did do something wrong. They crossed a border without permission or overstayed a visa. Despite what restrictionists like to think, they're not all criminals; immigration law is largely made up of civil statutes, not criminal ones. Yet despite what open border enthusiasts like to think, it cannot be denied that, on the way into this country, these people wiped their feet on our system of laws. A lot of Americans are steamed over this fact, and they should be.
Meanwhile, about 1.5 million young people -- a little more than 10 percent of the undocumented -- didn't do anything wrong. They were brought here as children by their parents. But let's not be naive. The fact that they didn't choose to come here doesn't mean that -- while they were growing up in the United States -- they didn't choose to break other laws such as driving without a license or taking a job by producing a phony Social Security card.
This is common sense. Yet, many immigration activists at the grass roots refuse to concede that most illegal immigrants did something wrong, and that there needs to be restitution before there can be reform.
Right-wingers aren't the only ones who oppose a path to citizenship. Some left-wingers do too, for different reasons.
On the right, conservative Republicans are wringing their hands over the fact that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky supports a version of it. Speaking to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul laid out a nuanced position. He would not favor an expedited path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but he would also not support those on the right who would either block illegal immigrants from ever becoming citizens or require them to return home in order to apply for citizenship. Paul would give them worker visas, and let them apply for citizenship from here.
You need to start worrying when Republicans who talk about immigration start making sense.
On the left, some oppose a path to citizenship if that path is too long, too onerous or too complicated. They also don't like this "go to the back of the line" business. They feel these people -- especially those who have lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for many years -- have waited long enough for green cards and citizenship. Besides, they also believe -- as any immigration attorney can tell you -- that if you're poor, unskilled, sponsored by anyone other than a U.S.-citizen parent or spouse, and from the wrong country (i.e., one that quickly burns through its visa allotment, such as Mexico), there is no line to get into.
Even so, it is completely unrealistic for those on the left to think that they can get what really matters -- legal status for the undocumented to spare them the fate of being deported by an administration that, ironically, liberals helped put in office -- without giving in a little and going along with a series of stringent conditions.
Why stringent? Because there needs to be a price paid by those who do wrong. It's only right.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at email@example.com.