Immigration reform is about what's best for us: Compassion is only one facet of a complex problem

This is the first of two parts on comprehensive immigration reform.

IN THIS SUMMER of resentment, new catchphrases like "Papers, please" and "Anchor babies" have entered the national consciousness.

In the frequent rants on illegal immigration on talk radio, cable TV and the blogs, we've been offered a series of false choices: We can be pro-immigrant or anti, for secure borders or for civil rights, for enforcing the law or for showing compassion. But the immigration issue has many more than two sides.

We have no doubt that, no matter what the results, the shouting will die down after the November election and the pressure to act will lessen. But the need for comprehensive immigration reform is urgent. We can't afford to put it off, and we can't afford to get it wrong, either.

That's what happened in 1986, when Congress passed an immigration law with so many loopholes that employers saw almost no downside, and a lot of profit, in hiring unauthorized workers.

The result: The number of illegal immigrants soared from 3 million then to an estimated 11 million today. Without reform that works, that number could more than double in the next generation, with serious ramifications for wages and working conditions - and with it, the American Dream.

This is the first editorial of an occasional series on the immigration dilemma, including how illegal immigration affects the economy and the best ideas for how to control it while dealing compassionately with illegal immigrants already here.

To be clear, the issue is not immigration. This is a proud nation of immigrants - it's part of our identity. But our highest priority must be to what's best for the United States and the people who live here now. The day is long past when we could welcome everyone who wanted to be here, so our immigration policy should be based on admitting people who can contribute the skills that are needed in this economy.

But the opposite is happening: We are feeding the bottom of the job market while starving the top. College-educated immigrants, often with skills that benefit the U.S., can find it difficult to get work simply because the jobs they do are legal. It's not likely that an engineer or accountant or lab technician would be able to practice his profession under the table. But the lack of enforcement of labor laws at the bottom of the economic ladder makes it easy for low-skilled illegal workers to find employment. And so they continue to come.

Pre-recession, some experts calculated that the effects of illegal immigration on the economy as a whole were benign. For younger, less-educated American workers, by contrast, it is catastrophic.

Foreign-born workers as a whole (about half of whom are illegal) are much younger than the general population, according to Paul Harrington of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. A study he led in 2006 found evidence that immigrants are directly competing against less-educated American workers. And winning.

For the Americans, it's a depression out there. The last decade has seen a precipitous drop in employment among teens and young adults. According to a recent analysis of teen employment by Andrew Sum, also of Northeastern, 51 percent of teens were employed in prosperous 1990; in June, only 29 percent had jobs, the lowest rate in the post-World War II era. Competition from immigrants is not the only reason for this precipitous drop, but it contributes to the downward spiral.

And the longer it's allowed to continue, the more entrenched it will become.

Tomorrow: Are there jobs Americans won't do?