Immigration is at the heart of our country’s formation and development — we are literally a nation of immigrants. Today, immigrants from all over the world continue to come here in search of freedom, opportunity, and a better life for their children — the very same reasons our ancestors came. Their enduring spirit of perseverance and innovation has not only strengthened our communities, but propelled us along the arc of progress.

Some of Maine’s greatest leaders, including each of my recent predecessors, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, and Ed Muskie, were the children of immigrants. The powerful contribution that immigration has made to the success of our country is undeniable.

But today we are faced with an immigration system that is broken and dysfunctional. We need fair-minded and comprehensive immigration reform to address these failings, and I believe the current bipartisan proposal offers such a solution. It also demonstrates a seriousness of purpose and a dedication to action that has for years now been absent in Washington with respect to virtually all major issues. With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country, Congress has an obligation to the future generations to establish an equitable and efficient system to deal with this reality and put us on a course to a long-term solution.

The most frequent argument I hear on this subject is that we should not grant amnesty to law breakers, and I agree. But the bill currently before the Senate is not amnesty. In my book, amnesty is a free pass, a get-out-of-jail-free card with no penalty paid. An analogy I like to use is that if you’re convicted of driving under the influence, you pay a fine, you lose your license, sometimes spend a few days in jail, and then you’re under a probationary period for several months or perhaps even several years. But when it’s all over, and you have paid your penalty, you get your license back and move on with your life — and nobody calls this amnesty.

Those 11 million illegal immigrants who seek to earn citizenship will pay their debt to society through fines and what amounts to a 13-year probationary period. They must learn English, pay their taxes, hold a job, keep out of trouble with the law, and only then can they apply for citizenship.

We also do need controls that secure our borders and prevent terrorists and criminals from entering the county, and this bill commits massive resources specifically to enhancing border security. It would establish innovative and robust systems to track people’s entry and exit from the country and make tracking down those who overstay their visas possible. Almost half of the currently undocumented people in the U.S. did not sneak over the border, but rather entered legally on a temporary visa and never left; this bill would quickly end that practice.

In recent debate I’ve heard a lot of concerns that these new people are going to depress wages for American workers. However, a couple of weeks ago I met with a union group at home in Maine, and to my surprise, they expressed great enthusiasm for the bill as a way to actually push wages up. They want immigration reform because those millions of immigrants who are now working in the shadows don’t have the benefits of labor protections, or any bargaining power, and when an employer uses an immigrant’s status as leverage for a lower salary, it creates an inherently uneven playing field that hurts everyone. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that creating a path to earned citizenship and providing these millions of potential new citizens with labor protections could save us $200 billion over the next 10 years — a gigantic stimulus to our domestic economy across the country and in Maine.

In our state, immigrants play a key role in keeping our local economies strong and enriching the cultural diversity of our society. Up in Aroostook and Downeast, migrants and immigrants help increase the productivity of our farms by picking blueberries, potatoes, and broccoli, and in Lewiston-Auburn and Portland we have seen the growth of vibrant refugee and asylum-seeking communities. One-third of the total enrollment at Portland High School is made up of refugees representing 45 different countries and 36 languages.

In the end, we cannot forget that immigration is how we all got here. It is our secret sauce. It is what has made us who we are. No other county in the history of the world was built the way this county was built — through the constant flow of new ideas, new people, and new energy coming together in a melting pot of different religions, cultures, and backgrounds. This debate is not about fences, fines, and learning English. It’s about America itself: confusing, chaotic, creative, at times unsettling, but always erring on the side of freedom and opportunity. This is who we are, and, I hope who we will always shall be.