Here's the idea: once we are able to legalize all the good undocumented immigrants, we can go all-out trying to track down and arrest the bad ones.
At least that's the way Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) made it sounds at a forum on Tuesday hosted by the AFL-CIO:
"Once you are able to clear the decks of those in the shadows, the only folks who will stay in the shadows are those that we really want to go after," he said. "So we won't have any fear now of trying to descend on folks who choose to stay in the shadows, because they're the folks that want to sell our kids drugs. They're the ones that are trying to game the system and violate our laws. And they're perhaps the one that we have to fear the most, because they may be potential terrorists."
But even if an immigration reform bill passes this year, things won't be so straightforward. Let's look at the bill in the Senate.
Sure, it would exclude lots of people with criminal records. But it would also withhold legal status from people who can't afford to pay the fines, people who don't meet certain work requirements and people who don't speak English well.
There would also be the new arrivals, people who came to the U.S. illegally, but after the cutoff date in the bill, December 31, 2011.
To be fair to Becerra, he's been a strong advocate of immigrant rights, backing bills like the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented young people.
And he's not alone in painting a neat-and-tidy good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy when it comes to people without papers.
Look no further than President Obama, who frequently brags that his administration deports mostly criminal immigrants, when a closer look shows that roughly seven out of ten of those removed have been low-level offenders or not guilty of any crime.
A lot of people would agree with Becerra on the basic point: that immigrants who are serious criminals should be deported.
But there will be lots of regular, law-abiding people who won't qualify for immigration reform. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that 25 percent of those who are in the country illegally either won't qualify for legalization under the Senate bill or would choose not to apply.
A percentage of those 3.5 million people would be criminals, but I doubt it would be the majority (the CBO doesn't go into that level of specificity).
The takeaway: Politicians are wrong if they believe that immigration reform will legalize everyone who follows the law, and leave only criminals "in the shadows."
And framing things this way -- that only bad guys will be left over -- might lead to some scary policies. You could allow the government to use more aggressive measures to track down killers than you would allow them to use against law-abiding people whose only crime is their immigration status.