Jacquelyn Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS
President Barack Obama listens as Mexico President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto makes a statement prior to their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Barack Obama has pledged to tackle the issue of immigration reform as a priority for his second term, and the sooner that effort begins in earnest, the better.

The issue is complicated and subject to sharp partisan differences, and has consequently fallen victim to the expediency of procrastination. It is high time for that to end, and the beginning point cannot be a piecemeal approach that focuses on a single component of the problem. What is needed and desired by the American public is a comprehensive effort that results in clear and sustainable policies to deal with extant issues, as well as those which will inevitably spring up in the future.

Chief among them is the status of those who enter the country without the proper documentation. There are currently an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and a process for them to become properly documented is the only realistic course of action.

Apprehending, detaining and deporting what amounts to 4 percent of the population is not even remotely feasible, and allowing those people to exist in a state of perpetual limbo makes no sense in any humanitarian or economic context.

There are those who would resist offering any pathway to citizenship, deriding it as unearned amnesty, but they are in the minority. A recent poll conducted for George Washington University and the website Politico, shows 62 percent of those surveyed would support an effort to grant undocumented immigrants the ability to earn citizenship over a period of years.

We agree that any policy that allows for earned citizenship should place an emphasis on the "earned" – undocumented immigrants must actively pursue a course toward attaining legal status, just as those who arrive with proper documentation are required to do in order to become citizens.

As for that component of the issue, a comprehensive reform package would also seek to untangle the byzantine and often indecipherable web of requirements and regulations that face new immigrants.

Most of them come in search of employment, so any reform must contemplate the impact on the nation's labor force. Immigrants are often seen as competition for limited jobs, but there is an opposite viewpoint, evident in the city of Baltimore, which has recently begun a concerted effort to attract immigrants to reverse a trend of out-migration from the city's core.

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Baltimore's mayor would like to bring 10,000 new families into the city over the next decade to boost income and property tax revenues. The plan recognizes that a wave of immigration has historically been an engine for economic growth in most American cities.

The Baltimore initiative is more evidence of the growing need for national policy reform. We have seen in recent years a variety of efforts by state and local governments to deal with immigration issues, largely to fill the void left by federal inaction.

Only Washington can act to vanquish that void, and the evidence is clear that the time for such action is now.