If you believe the headlines, the partial shutdown of the federal government is the result of a dispute between President Trump and congressional Democrats over money to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

The actual reason the government is shut down is because Congress failed in its constitutional duty to pass an annual budget and the necessary appropriations for the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1. Instead, as it has repeatedly done since the George W. Bush administration, Congress has passed a series of continuing resolutions to extend previous spending for a specific period of time.

Each time those resolutions expire without being replaced, the government faces a shutdown.

But we digress.

Trump wants $5 billion in the next continuing resolution to build a wall on the southern border. Democrats don’t want to build a wall.

Building a wall, or not building a wall, is not the central issue in the debate over illegal immigration. It’s not that simple.

The real question is who do we let into this country?

The Constitution gives Congress sole authority to regulate immigration and there are numerous laws already on the books addressing the topic.

Congress could liberalize those rules and expand the number of legal immigrants it allows from Latin America, whether they be refugees or traditional immigrants.

Though it seems to us that despite all the chest thumping and hand wringing that has passed in official Washington over this issue going back to the Reagan administration, precious little has changed.

It is almost as if it is preferred that new arrivals creep over the border at some desolate desert crossing rather than be welcomed at the front door.

And what of those who have so entered?

There are perhaps 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. The majority are economic refugees, drawn here by the promise of opportunities unavailable in their home countries. The agriculture, construction and hospitality industries have come to depend on these workers, despite their status.

Congress must offer illegal immigrants temporary legal status and a path to permanent residency, but not citizenship, after 10 years if they can be properly vetted and meet strict requirements — no prior felony convictions, no violations while awaiting residency, learning to speak English and assimilate, and pay a fine and back taxes.

The border should be secured. A viable agricultural guestworker program must be established, and employers must verify the work status of their employees.

We respect the rule of law, and do not lightly suggest rewarding those who have flouted it. But we are reluctant to disrupt the lives of otherwise harmless people who have done what we would do — whatever it takes to ensure the safety and welfare of our families.

If Congress wants to make it easier for refugees and others to enter the country legally, it should make it so.

Only Congress can change the laws.

Let more foreign nationals enter legally, or keep them out. Let illegal immigrants that are here stay, or make them go.

Keeping them forever in the shadows does not serve the rule of law.

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