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OPINION

Immigration reform: Yes, we can?

Immigration reform has been all but impossible to achieve in Congress. But there are novel ideas on how to move the needle.

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It’s one of the most intractable issues of modern American policymaking: the ever-elusive immigration reform.

Indeed, immigration reform as most people understand it — that is, to dramatically overhaul most dimensions of our vast, complex, and dysfunctional immigration system and legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants that live here — is all but impossible to achieve in Congress. The last time the United States enacted meaningful immigration reform was 37 years ago. Since then, all legislative attempts at reforming any major aspect of our immigration system (i.e., legalizing so-called dreamers) have predictably withered or flat-out died on Capitol Hill.

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That said, there are ideas on how to move the needle on immigration. It has been an urgent matter for quite some time, but modernizing how the United States welcomes and processes immigrants has reached a critical point given the extraordinary impact that the influx of migrants and asylum seekers is having on cities and states across the nation, including Massachusetts.

It will take some creativity and political will to see those ideas through.

Consider the immigration idea incubator at the Niskanen Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The center has been publishing “early-stage analysis” on emerging immigration policy ideas, including establishing a special cap-exempt allocation for small businesses in the H-1B category visa; enacting simple but impactful bureaucratic tweaks, such as allowing applicants to the Temporary Protected Status program to request work authorization in a single form, which would reduce long application processing backlogs; and eliminating a requirement for companies that are requesting a work visa for a foreign-born employee to advertise that job position in Sunday newspapers, an anachronistic condition if there ever was one since companies rarely ever advertise job opportunities in Sunday newspapers.

The H-1B special allocation most likely requires an act of Congress, Kristie De Peña, Niskanen’s senior vice president of policy and director of immigration, said in an email. But the other two ideas don’t. In a similar fashion, there are additional proposals that don’t require Congress’s approval.

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For instance, in New York, state lawmakers are exploring bills that would allow the state to issue state work permits for migrants and asylum seekers. It’s an unprecedented move, an attempt to help migrants sidestep the long wait for work authorization from the federal government. But the White House pushed back and discouraged states from pursuing state permits since work permits remain solely within federal purview. While the legality of such a state measure remains undecided, it is indicative of the frustration and urgency that state leaders rightly feel. And a state-level work permit plan is worth pursuing, even if it’s only on a small-scale pilot program basis.

Similarly, Bloomberg columnist and author Eduardo Porter recently wrote an intriguing piece exploring the levers that city authorities can pull to deal with the influx of migrants and asylum seekers and issue work permits to them. Porter’s argument “rests on the legal fact that working on one’s own account — as a street vendor, perhaps, or a hairdresser — does not count as employment, which immigration law forbids unauthorized immigrants from doing,” he wrote.

Porter then suggests that if city leaders treat asylum seekers and migrants as independent contractors, they can very well adjust municipal licensing rules to allow them to work as such. Boston should take notice.

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This isn’t to let Congress off the hook. Nor is there a lack of legislative proposals to resurrect broader immigration reform.

Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Florida) and Representative Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) at a bipartisan news conference to introduce the Dignity Act on May 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

Take the Dignity Act, a bill introduced by two Latina congresswomen: Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican from Florida, and Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas. The sweeping bill, which is nearly 500 pages long, has bipartisan support. It would give undocumented immigrants a chance to obtain legal status if they meet certain requirements, such as clearing a criminal background check and paying any taxes owed; increase funding to strengthen border security; modernize the American immigration system to meet our economic needs; and reform the asylum adjudication process, among other things.

Too good to be true? That’s exactly the problem. Inertia and political gamesmanship leave us stuck with an outdated immigration system that has created a quagmire rather than a rational process — one our nation of immigrants deserves.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.