• With: Jason Riley, Dan Henninger, James Freeman

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," February 2, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the immigration debate heats up as both sides stake out their positions. A look at the politics and the possibilities this time around.

    And remember those fat-cat bankers President Obama used to talk about? Well, he has nominated one for his treasury secretary. We'll dig deeper into Jack Lew's tenure at Citibank.

    And just in time for Super Bowl Sunday, the president weighs in on football violence. He is not sure he would let his son play. Should you?

    GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    A potential breakthrough this week on one of the nation's most divisive issues as a bipartisan group of Senator laid out the framework for a comprehensive immigration reform deal a day before President Obama took up the issue in a Las Vegas speech. But the road ahead is far from smooth with one of the biggest obstacles being what to do with those illegal immigrants already in the country and how easy their path to citizenship should be.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

    SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-FLA.: If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest and cheapest pathway to green card possible, this thing is not going to go well.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to deal with the 11 million individuals who are here illegally. We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship, but for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

    GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; Political Diary editor, Jason Riley; and assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman.

    Jason, you have followed this for years, written a book about immigration. What is the substantive policy case for immigration reform out of Washington?

    JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: Policy wise, I think that they help our economy.

    GIGOT: Immigrants, legal or illegal?

    RILEY: Giving foreign workers access to our labor markets makes those markets more efficient and makes us a more productive country economically. That has been the case for hundreds of years in this country. And just as the free trade of goods and services makes our economy more efficient, so does the free movement of labor across international borders. That is the economic case. These workers are filling niches in our labor markets that help make us more efficient.

    GIGOT: OK, fair enough. But they are already here, OK?

    RILEY: Yes.

    GIGOT: So 11 million is the estimate. Why just not settle for the status quo rather than trying to make them -- put them on a legal path and change the law?

    RILEY: First of all, if they are here illegally, they are open to exploitation by employers. We don't want that. Also, as you mentioned, the economy has absorbed those that are already here. But our economy will continue to grow, maybe not as much as we like under the current president. But we will grow again and have a need for more workers from these countries. We need a legal way for them to come.

    GIGOT: So we need more workers at the top end through skilled sciences, technology, engineers because we are not graduating enough Americans for that role. But you also, most low-skilled works for industries like farm labor, hospitality, construction and a lot of other things?

    DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST AND DEPUTY EDITOR: Let's emphasize that point, Paul. We're not talking about a marginal matter in the economy. These workers are integral to the economy in states like Georgia and Iowa. Meat packing in Alabama, chickens, Texas, construction. All those industries employ a lot of these low-skilled immigrants. Some of them are illegal and some of they will legal, but they're an integral part of those restaurants. The restaurant industry in New York would collapse over night if they weren't there.

    Now the issue is whether Americans will take those jobs is unclear. The evidence suggests they won't. Those industries can't hire, simply remove these immigrants and replace them with American workers.

    GIGOT: I think the evidence is clear on that in agriculture, for example, where the lack of farm workers has caused many American growers move south of the border?

    RILEY: Sure. Sure. And we should be clear here, Paul, economists are worried about using the word need. Would America survive if we sealed our border? Sure, we would. The question is here though is not whether we just want to survive. It's whether, would we better off with these workers doing certain jobs? Do we want people with high school degrees or college educations in the field picking crops?

    (CROSSTALK)

    RILEY: What would do? If the price were right, you might, if you paid them $100,000 a year, they might. But what would that do to the price of food? What would that do to the cost of going out to dinner at a restaurant? You can't just increase prices wily-nilly.

    GIGOT: You're talking about --

    RILEY: I mean, there are consequences.

    GIGOT: We want a free labor market --

    RILEY: Yes.

    GIGOT: -- with a lot of opportunities for people and then people able to fill those openings.

    James, let's talk about the politics here. Have the politics changed from 2007 on immigration when it last went down in flames in the Congress?

    JAMES FREEMAN, ASSISTANT EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: We'll see. On the Democratic side, we'll see if President Obama, who helped kill that reform, now wants to play a constructive role in this one. We hope so. On the Republican side, maybe this is one benefit of the election, where there were a lot of people coming out afterwards with a lot of crazy lessons for the GOP.

    (LAUGHER)

    When the problem was really Mitt Romney. This is one area in terms of reaching out to Hispanic voters where --

    (CROSSTALK)

    GIGOT: Not just Hispanics but also Asian immigrants and --

    FREEMAN: All different ethnic groups where the political desire may match up with the public policy where the outcome here. Julian Simon used to talk about how human beings are the greatest natural resource. What is our advantage in the United States over our competitors? In the Obama era, it's tough to come up with that list, but one is our population is still growing. We benefit from it.

    GIGOT: Another big change, Dan, Marco Rubio, Florida Senator, Republican, conservative, no question about his conservative credentials, leading the fight on this at some political risk.