"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," President Reagan told Americans during his second debate with former Vice President Mondale in 1984.

Two years later, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which created a path to citizenship for the then-estimated 5 million or so illegal immigrants thought to be living in the United States.

Under the 1986 measure, undocumented immigrants had to register with the federal government, admit they entered the country illegally, pay a $185 fine and back taxes, prove they had arrived in the United States before 1982 and prove they were of "good moral character."

Then, after 18 months and passing a rudimentary English test, they were given green cards and allowed to get in line with everybody else seeking to become citizens.

At least 2.7 million illegal immigrants eventually took advantage of this path and received green cards. But only 40 percent of that 2.7 million ever became citizens. The vast majority of those who were illegal ended up being perfectly happy with the permanent resident status their green cards afforded them.

Unfortunately, Reagan's amnesty policy failed. The mandated employer verification system never materialized. Neither did the increased border security. As a result, there are now about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., released an 844-page bill this week to address this not-so-new problem. Both have sworn repeatedly their bill is not amnesty. But while some details of the Schumer-Rubio plan do differ with those in Reagan's amnesty, they are differences of degree, not kind.

Both approaches require immigrants to come forward and register with the government. Both require passage of an English test and immigrants to pay back taxes.

But where Reagan called for a $185 fine, Schumer-Rubio calls for a $2,000 fine. Where Reagan allowed immigrants to obtain green cards after 18 months, Schumer-Rubio makes them wait 10 years.

So the Schumer-Rubio amnesty is harsher than the Reagan amnesty, but the same outline is there: legalization now for promised border enforcement later.

And make no mistake, no matter what Rubio says otherwise, all of the promised border security measures in his bill are just that: promises. Nothing in the bill empowers U.S. citizens to hold the federal government accountable for failing to meet any of the bill's security metrics.

Just as Obama can sign an executive order granting de facto amnesty to so-called DREAM Act recipients now, nothing is stopping Obama, or the next president, from unilaterally declaring tomorrow that the bill's security measures have been met.

Which is a shame, because America's immigration system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Thousands of gifted foreigners want to come to this country, work and create jobs.

But instead they are forced to return home because of our complicated and slow immigration process. This process can be greatly simplified, and the number of visas given to high-skilled workers can be raised substantially.

And something must also be done about the 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be in the country today. The American people clearly do not have the political will to deport them, and their continued shadow-presence in the country only undermines the rule of law by creating both a demand for forged documents and a supply of easily exploitable labor.

Why not give those found illegally in the United States a simple choice? You can stay and become legal by registering with the federal government, but if you do, you forfeit all chance of becoming an American citizen.

This offer would depend, of course, on passing an extensive background check paid for by the immigrant in question. And if this policy was open not just to those in the country today, but also those found illegally in the country tomorrow, it would not be amnesty in any way. It would just be a new legal alternative to deportation.

Considering that far less than half of those who were granted resident status in 1986 ever bothered to become citizens, why are Democrats so focused on guaranteeing citizenship this time around?

If Rubio and Schumer could just put their insistence on amnesty aside, common-sense immigration reform that vastly increased high-skill immigration and legalized those already in the country could pass both the House and Senate swiftly.

Conn Carroll (ccarroll@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.