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Talking turkey on immigration reform in the lame-duck session

The contours of a bipartisan deal that would address at least some of the failures of our immigration system have taken shape.

Executive Director at United We Dream Greisa Martinez spoke during a news conference about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program outside the US Capitol on Nov. 16 in Washington. Senate Democrats called on Republicans to join them in passing DACA legislation during the lame-duck session to protect young migrants brought to the United States as children from being deported.Drew Angerer/Getty

It wouldn’t be everything that immigration-rights advocates, many elected Democrats, and indeed this editorial page have called for over the many years in which comprehensive immigration reform has been stalled in Congress.

But with only a few weeks left before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, the contours of a bipartisan deal that would address at least some of the failures of our immigration system have taken shape.

It would be a shame to let the opportunity pass.

Here’s what an achievable compromise in the lame-duck session of Congress might look like: legislation to legalize the immigration status of people who were brought to this country as minors; an overhaul of guest worker visas for agriculture; protections for Afghan refugees; and a change to the asylum-processing system at the border.


The asylum-processing provisions, introduced by Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, would be a bitter pill for some Democrats to swallow. So it will take some leadership from President Biden to accept the compromise and then get Democrats on board — before Republicans take over Congress in January and the chance for any meaningful immigration legislation vanishes.

Indeed, protecting the so-called “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children, and who may have virtually no connection to their homeland — has become a matter of new urgency.

Dreamers were briefly protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Enacted by former president Barack Obama via executive action in 2012, the program has proven to be one of the most successful immigration policies in the past few decades. It has allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to go to college, get good-paying jobs, buy homes and cars, and contribute greatly to the economy. But the program stopped accepting applications after former president Donald Trump shut it down in 2017. Ever since, its existence has been snarled in legal challenge after legal challenge. The program’s future is expected to be decided once and for all by the Supreme Court, where the current conservative majority will likely rule that it is illegal.


That would strip nearly 600,000 immigrants of their protected status and render them subject to deportation. According to estimates by, a bipartisan immigration reform advocacy nonprofit, about 22,000 jobs would be lost each and every month for two years, or roughly 1,000 jobs each business day on average, if the highest court ends the DACA program. Worse, many beneficiaries work in sectors that are currently experiencing major labor shortages, such as the food industry (about 66,000 DACA beneficiaries) and health care (27,000).

And they work all over the country — in the districts of Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. The potential disruptions to employers in their own states should be reason enough for GOP senators to get on board with some kind of legislation like the bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House last March to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children.

Then there’s the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which the food and agriculture sectors are heavily lobbying for — including the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, and Maine restaurant owners — based on arguments about worsening food shortages. The House passed the bill last year, which would reform the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa and create a process to legalize thousands of undocumented workers in agricultural sectors. At a press conference Nov. 16 organized by the American Business Immigration Coalition at Capitol Hill, several groups urged the Senate to pass the bill in the lame duck. At the event, Shay Myers, an Idaho produce business owner who supports the bill, said that his farm had to destroy 130,000 pounds of asparagus last year because he couldn’t hire enough workers to harvest it.


Finally, the Afghan Adjustment Act would provide a path to permanent status to tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated to America last year amid US military withdrawal and Taliban takeover.

But any immigration proposal would need support from 10 Senate Republicans to avoid a filibuster, a nearly impossible feat if that proposal doesn’t include measures to enhance border security. The vague term “border security” includes impractical ideas like Trump’s border wall — but also some that Democrats should be able to accept.

Consider the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act introduced by Sinema and Cornyn. It refashions the asylum-processing system at the border by establishing processing centers along the border where migrants would apply for asylum and get a decision on their claims. Many Democrats and advocates dismiss the bill as a nonstarter, claiming it will rush the process and make a joke of it. But the asylum process as it is right now is backlogged and incredibly inefficient.


So what if Democrats support the Sinema-Cornyn bill, or portions of it, in exchange for a path to citizenship for dreamers, farmworkers, and Afghan refugees? It would be a deal worth taking — and a trade that might not be on offer again anytime soon.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.