Many loud voices in the debate over immigration have been insisting that effective border enforcement must precede any steps that legalize the status of current illegal immigrants.
Some analysts, including my Washington Examiner colleague Byron York, have been reading the fine print in the 800-page draft prepared by the Senate Gang of Eight (or Gang of Ocho, if you prefer).
They argue that the legislation is quick to provide some form of legal status but only calls for commissions to be convened at some later time if the border is not secured. There's something to these arguments. The Gang of Eight, like the drafters of the 1986 law and the bills that failed to pass in 2006 and 2007, is offering a deal: legalization in return for effective enforcement. The 1986 law, it is widely agreed, did not deliver on enforcement and this bill won't either.
But that is yesterday's issue. The border doesn't matter as much as it used to.
That's because the U.S. is not likely to have another wave of immigration across the border from Mexico anywhere near the magnitude of the one from 1982 to 2007.
During most of that time Mexico's birth rates were high, and its economy was hit by periodic crashes. In most of those years the United States was generating large numbers of new jobs, especially in California and Texas. The wave of immigration from Mexico followed.
Today conditions are different. Mexico's birth rates have fallen, its economy is growing while ours struggles, and the dream of homeownership in the U.S. was shattered as foreclosures took a heavy toll on Hispanic immigrants.
We can and do better on the border -- though we should keep in mind that Texas leaders including Gov. Rick Perry don't want a fence along the Rio Grande. But those who fear that legalization will trigger another wave of illegals would be wise to direct their attention to other parts of the legislation.
One is e-Verify, the system to determine the legal status of job applicants by checking their Social Security numbers. It's been required for some employers in states including Arizona, and a survey conducted for Immigration Works, a group that favors a comprehensive bill, reports that 23 percent of restaurant owners are using it today.
The Gang of Eight says that its bill will mandate the use of e-Verify. It's a tool that was not available when the 1986 law was passed.
Most Americans then, Left and Right, were skittish about creating anything like a national identity card. Americans today, after years of mass illegal immigration and terrorist attacks, seem less troubled by this.
An effective means of validating legal status -- and why should this be harder than what Visa and MasterCard do every day? -- could vastly reduce job opportunities for illegal immigrants. It can dramatically decrease the incentive to cross the border illegally or overstay a visa.
Those who fear future illegal immigration should be drilling down into the e-Verify sections. When will its use be required? And of whom? What are the standards it must meet, and who decides?
It's possible that a case can be made for strengthening the e-Verify provisions. Those who don't want another wave of illegals should make that case if they can.
The other area of concern to those who decry mass low-skill immigration is the section covering high-skill immigration.
The Gang of Eight says it will increase the slots for high-skill immigrants. That would move us some distance toward countries like Canada and Australia, which limit immigration to those with high skills.
Currently we have a small number of H-1B visas allowing entry to those with high-tech skills. Surely we need to increase that number.
But should we limit those immigrants, as we currently do, to one employer? Maybe high-skill immigrants could make more contributions to our society if they were able to operate freely in the marketplace.
Major immigration legislation gets passed only every generation or two -- 1924, 1965, 1986. The provisions of the law end up shaping the future population of the nation, sometimes in unanticipated ways.
One of those unanticipated ways was the wave of illegal low-skill immigrants, mainly but not entirely from Mexico, that started in the early 1980s and was accelerated by the 1986 law.
Those who regret that would be wise to concentrate not on yesterday's issues but on tomorrow's issues like employer verification and encouraging high-skill immigration.
Michael Barone, The Washington Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.