As a nation of immigrants, Americans know how important immigration has been throughout our history. It's an indispensable part of our future.
Sadly, our immigration system is broken, and our dysfunctional Congress has been unable to put in place a new legal immigration system that honors our heritage as both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. To do this, we need to address three key areas.
First, we need a modern legal immigration system with an application and compliance system that relies on new technology to simplify the process of coming and staying here legally.
We need an agricultural workers program that allows us to bring in seasonal and long-term laborers to provide our agricultural industries with the workers they need.
We need visa programs to attract and keep more entrepreneurs, investors and highly skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
None of this should lead us to abandon or undermine family-based immigration. That is how my parents came to America legally, and how a great many new Americans join our society every year. Family unification should remain a high priority alongside the nation's economic interests.
A second key area is improving our law enforcement. Every nation has a right to protect its sovereignty by enforcing its immigration laws. We must attain operational control of our borders, create an effective workplace enforcement mechanism, and make sure that visitors to our nation leave our country when they're supposed to.
The third key area: addressing the undocumented immigrants already here. Those who have committed serious crimes in the United States should be found, arrested and deported.
Most of those who are undocumented are not dangerous criminals. But most are also not victims. They knowingly broke our immigration laws and do not have a legal right to remain here. But they are also human beings who made those choices in pursuit of a dream we recognize as the American dream.
The best thing for our country is to deal with this issue in a humane but responsible way that ensures this never happens again - not because anyone has a "right" to reside here illegally, but because, with or without documents, most of them are here to stay.
We can't round up millions of people and deport them. But we also can't fix our broken immigration system if we provide incentives for people to come here illegally - precisely the signal a blanket amnesty would send.
Instead, the first step should be to require those who have not committed any felonies and are assimilated into America, to have the opportunity to apply for temporary non-immigrant status. To receive this status, they will have to come forward, admit wrongdoing, undergo a background check and pay back taxes and a meaningful fine for violating our laws.
To keep this status, they must maintain clean criminal records. And they will not be able to receive welfare, student aid or any other federal public assistance.
It's not a good idea to have millions of people permanently trapped in an immigration status that keeps them forever at a distance from our society. Therefore, once our new enforcement measures are certifiably in place, they should be allowed to apply for permanent status - not through a special pathway, but through the new and modernized legal immigration process we envision. They will have to wait behind everyone who applied before them legally. And when their turn comes up, they will have to meet the conditions of the visa they apply for.
In the past, efforts to accommodate the undocumented have failed because the enforcement measures were never implemented. That's why this option to apply for a green card and get in the back of the line should not be made available until it is certified that significant progress has been made on enforcement of our immigration laws.
Both sides should want this kind of common-sense reform. To those concerned about illegal immigration, what we have now is de facto amnesty. To those looking to help the undocumented, families will continue being separated by deportations as long as politicians keep bickering and trying to outdo each other.
I've been encouraged by the support for these ideas I've found across the political spectrum, and my hope is President Obama will use his voice and influence to further this approach. However, if what he offers is a process for the undocumented that is more lenient, faster and unfair to those waiting to come legally, it won't bode well for reform.
I hope he proves that he is as serious about solving the problem as I and many colleagues are.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a former Las Vegas resident and the son of Cuban immigrants.