Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Jessica Bahena, a sophomore at the University of Utah, signs a petition to urge Congress to move forward with the DREAM Act at the U. campus. The DREAM Act gives children of illegal-immigrant parents a pathway to citizenship by attending college.

The apparent euphoria over recent developments in national immigration reform belies the very partisan politics that always seem to doom its progress. While we should be encouraged by the news of a bipartisan group of senators seeking common ground, combined with President Barrack Obama’s unequivocal endorsement that the time is now right, we’d do better to skip the wishful thinking and work to ensure a thorough and intelligent debate.

Utah is doing its part in that debate. We set the example for Congress. Our HB 116 is the blueprint to meet the objectives stated by President Obama: accountability, public safety and legalization. Utah’s approach lifts undocumented immigrants to the surface of society, focuses the attention of law enforcement on serious criminals and provides a functional mechanism (i.e., a work permit) allowing undocumented immigrants to safely and productively contribute to society.

If Congress stubbornly emphasizes a pathway to citizenship predicated upon agreement over border control, as it appears to be doing, politics will devour sound policy. Our border with Mexico, sutured by miles of fence line and barbed wire, is an embarrassment to a free society and a sure sign that legal immigration policy is broken. The fact that senators are talking about sorties by unmanned drones ought to alert us that they have no clue how to “secure the border.” A truly secure border in a free society is maintained by realistic legal immigration policies, driven and measured by natural human expectations for freedom and prosperity. Unfortunately, it seems saber-rattling, not reason, captures too much of the imagination of many Republican faithful.

But Republicans can’t take all the blame. Democrats, too, are responsible for this mess. For instance, calls for a pathway to citizenship are unnecessary. When Utah Sen. Mike Lee announced he was stepping away from his Gang of Eight colleagues, he did so on the claim that a pathway to citizenship is amnesty. He could make that claim because so many ideologues on the left insist that citizenship, not accountability, is the overriding goal. Sen. Lee is simply taking their word for it.

In reality, Congress need not have heated debates over amnesty or citizenship. It simply needs to establish functional mechanisms, as Utah has proposed, to legalize undocumented immigrants. Simply recognize legally what’s already occurring naturally. Undocumented immigrants are living here, working here and raising their children here.

Legalization is not amnesty. Senator Lee knows the difference between the two, as do all reasonable conservatives. Congress need only define legalization and the functional mechanisms to make it work. If newly documented, legalized immigrants want to become citizens (and not all will), they can do so without disrupting their work and families. They can simply apply for citizenship through regular legal channels. Their applications would go to the back of the line without the unrealistic expectation that the applicants will return to their countries of origin.

Focusing congressional attention on legal immigration is the key. The more Congress focuses on ways to lift restrictive immigration rules — such as abolishing the inherently unjust quota system — and less on ways to “enforce the law,” the more likely we’ll achieve a proper balance between order and liberty.

Utah’s example has been, and will continue to be, crucial in driving this important debate. The Utah Legislature must not betray its good work on HB 116 over speculative worries about federal lawsuits. Neither should it punt by thinking our job is now done. Congress is famous for talking and not doing.

Paul Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.