Cokie and Steven Roberts

President Obama has a lot on his plate: Afghanistan, health care, climate change and a persistent and poisonous unemployment rate. Now he's adding another indigestible dish: immigration reform.

In an important speech last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reaffirmed the administration's commitment to the issue and said, "The hope is that when we get into the first part of 2010 we will see legislation begin to move."

We hope she's right. The current immigration system is an abomination on every level. Twelve million people live here illegally; they are not going home, but they have no hope of normalizing their status. Even families with a legal right to immigrate can remain separated for 10 years or more. And wrongheaded visa policies are driving away some of the world's best minds at a time when the American economy needs them more than ever.

Napolitano said it well: "The immigrant story is part of what it means to be an American but failing to fix a broken system that undermines our shared values of lawfulness and fairness is not."

Fixing that system will not be easy, of course. Both parties have turned health care into a holy war, and as the elections approach, the partisan hostilities stirred up by that debate will grow hotter, not cooler. The last time Congress tried (and failed) to fix immigration, in 2007, Republican strategists decided that demonizing foreigners would energize their ground troops, and the demagogues are circling again.

Still, there are reasons for optimism, starting with public opinion. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last spring found that 61 percent favored giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship "if they pay a fine and meet other requirements." By more than two to one, Americans told a Gallup survey last year that immigration was "a good thing," not a "bad thing."

Then there's politics. Smart Republicans know what George W. Bush and John McCain have always known: The GOP cannot be the majority party by driving away Hispanics, the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. Last year, Obama won 67 percent of all Hispanics, but that figure jumped to 76 percent for voters under 30.

That's why some Republican senators are already talking to Democrats about bipartisan legislation. Even Lou Dobbs, a professional immigrant basher before leaving CNN, is confronting political reality as he contemplates a political career in New Jersey. Appearing on the Spanish-language network Telemundo, Dobbs said, "We need the ability to legalize illegal immigrants (who are) living upright, positive and constructive lives."

Napolitano emphasized a third factor driving change: a growing understanding by pro-immigration forces that "serious and effective" enforcement of existing laws has to come first. And the Homeland Security secretary documented a long list of administration initiatives, from a beefed-up Border Patrol to more vigorous prosecution of "criminal aliens." A former governor of Arizona, Napolitano asserted: "I know a major shift when I see one, and what I have seen makes reform far more attainable this time around."

There's a final point pushing immigration reform. It actually promotes three bedrock conservative principles: family unity, law and order, and free markets.

Of the 12 million illegals, one in seven is a child. Moreover, undocumented parents have more than 3 million children who are citizens. How does sending those parents home, and ripping those families apart, square with any conservative (let alone Christian) set of values?

Right now, most illegals live outside the law, afraid to encounter authorities by paying taxes, obtaining driver's licenses or insurance, complaining about corruption or exploitation. Giving them a shot at citizenship will make them more law-abiding, and the country more safe.

Yes, the current economic slump makes it easy to complain that foreigners are "taking jobs" from Americans, and in a few cases such as the construction industry that might be true. But every economic survey every one concludes that, overall, immigrants contribute heavily to economic growth and prosperity.

In his new book, "From Every End of This Earth," Steve describes 13 immigrant families, ranging from Sam and Pete Kourtsounis from Greece, who run a diner outside Baltimore, Md., to Asis Banerjie, a chemist who owns high-tech plastics factories in Ohio and India. Both illustrate the truth contained in an economic report to President Bush: "Immigration has touched every facet of the U.S. economy and America is a stronger and better nation for it."

Yes, we are. That's why the president and the Congress have to work together next year to "fix a broken system."

Steve Roberts' new book, "From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at