12/17/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

The Shape of Immigration Reform: It's Not About Votes

Everyone says Congress and President Obama will tackle -- and solve -- immigration reform just as soon as the 'fiscal cliff' crisis is averted (or not.)

Just how that will be done is the 12 million -- not dollars, but unauthorized immigrants' -- question.

I've been in the trenches as a practicing immigration lawyer for over 27 years, and I'm worried that there's no one left in Congress with the expertise to write a workable reform bill. When Teddy Kennedy died, his 40+ years of experience crafting immigration legislation also died, and his knowledgeable staffers scattered to the four winds.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a beast, comprising hundreds of pages of law and thousands of pages of regulations. Maneuvering it occupies over 11,000 working immigration lawyers and untold thousands of federal employees at ICE, CBP, USCIS, DOL, DOJ and the State Department. Changing it will be no small task.

Apart from total inaction or gridlock, there are three reform scenarios that could play out. In the 'Piecemeal' scenario, the reform is chopped up into many separate bills; one for students, another for investors, something for entrepreneurs, and maybe one for agricultural workers. In the 'Big But Wrong' scenario, Congress does a total rewrite, but ends up making the system worse than before. This is what happened in 1996 with the IIRAIRA.

I favor the 'Big And Right' scenario, in which we address the systemic problems of the INA in ways that make us stronger, safer, freer and more prosperous...and that won't require a 'do-over' in another 15 or 20 years from now.

But doing it 'right' means taking risks, and member of Congress are among the most risk-averse of our species. If members are worried about gaining or losing votes (and funding,) then immigration reform simply won't happen. This issue requires statesmanship and long-range vision for what is, and will be, good for the country for decades to come, not just the next election cycle.

The shape of the 'right' reform will include:

- more visas in all categories;

- broader and more flexible definitions of the various visa categories;

- total reform of the arcane 'grounds of inadmissibility' that are now used by the government to block the entry of hundreds of thousands of otherwise perfectly decent potential immigrants; and

- re-authorization of the exercise of discretion by immigration officers and judges so that minor infractions can be waived in the name of family unity.

Not one of these four items is palatable to immigration restrictionists, in and out of Congress. But all of them are essential to any reform that has any chance of fixing our broken system.

So, to Congress I say: Round up the experts, look to the future and forget about tomorrow's vote. Pass an immigration reform bill that will heal our country and that will last for 50 years or more.