Immigration reform is possible if Congress deals with border security and focuses on economics in dealing with the country's illegal immigrant population, say U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and a policy expert.

Flake and Judith Gans, manager of the Immigration Policy Program at the University of Arizona's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, made their remarks in separate interviews for Friday's Arizona Week.

Political reality - specifically the outcome of the 2012 election - make immigration reform more likely now than at any time in the recent past, the two agreed.

The debate likely will move to the next level in a few days, because one report Friday said President Barack Obama is scheduled to give a speech on immigration in Las Vegas Tuesday, and a bipartisan group of senators is near to releasing its proposals.

Jeff Flake portrait

Photo: AZPM

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

Flake, R-Ariz., is a member of that bipartisan group, which is known as the "Gang of Eight." He said any plan must take into account the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

"We're not going to deport them," Flake said. "They're not going to self-deport. We need a reasonable, responsible mechanism to do it. It doesn't have to include amnesty. It shouldn't."

Legislation that Flake co-sponsored when a member of the U.S. House in 2005 would be the starting point for dealing with the illegal immigrant population, he said.

"If you're here illegally and you wish to stay ... in a temporary worker status, you learn English, you pay back taxes, you jump through a lot of hoops," he said. "Anybody who has any criminal record would not be allowed to enter this program.

"But if they wish later to adjust their status, and perhaps go toward citizenship, they would have to wait until everybody who is in the line going through the legal, orderly process has gone through it, and then they could petition to adjust their status," Flake said. "That to me is what defines amnesty, is whether somebody cuts in line ahead of those who are going through the legal, orderly process."

Judith Gans portrait

Photo: AZPM

Judith Gans.

Gans, whose research has included a number of economic studies of immigrants in the country, said "illegal immigration is a symptom of the problem" of a legal system not in line with economic needs.

"The biggest thing that needs to happen is to bring the legal immigration system into alignment with current economic and demographic realities in the United States," Gans said. "The current system was put in place in the mid 1960s, and it's fundamentally out of alignment with the current U.S. economy."

She said the native-born U.S., work force is aging and is not big enough to handle the labor demands of an economy that has shifted from manufacturing to service. That drives immigration, legal and otherwise.

Gans and Flake said politics have shifted, and that will provide impetus for reform.

"On the Republican side, I think there's a political realization that we can't take some of the positions that have been taken in the past," Flake said. "Having said that, the position I took in the campaign is that border security has to be paramount."

Gans predicted the debate will focus on "what's the appropriate penalty for being in the country illegally. One side will say, 'Look, they broke our laws, they should be deported and there should be no mercy shown.' That's at one end of the spectrum.

"At the other end of the spectrum you have people saying, 'Look, we hired them. Let it go. They're integrated into society. Many undocumented immigrants have U.S. citizen children or are married to U.S. citizens. They're embedded in society.' ... The answer is somewhere in the middle."

Read Gans' immigration economics report here: View at Google Docs | Download File