Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
A relatively quiet congressional effort to achieve bipartisan progress on immigration appeared to meet an untimely end this week.
In the mix of the lame-duck session, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a former Democrat from Arizona turned independent, had been working with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on a bill that would have addressed critical areas in immigration: the fate of so-called Dreamers, billions of dollars to secure the southern border, and better, faster processing of asylum claims.
Unable to lock down the 60-vote supermajority needed to end the inevitable filibuster, the two senators will not be able to include the bill in year-end appropriations legislation, all but ending any hope of immigration reform this year.
This is happening against the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic border situation in which more than 2,400 migrants crossed into the U.S. each day of the previous weekend in El Paso, Texas, according to a CNN report, in what was described as a major surge in such crossings.
Congress has remained stubbornly unwilling to enact comprehensive immigration reform for years, refusing to accept even reasonable accommodations to the other side. The result has been stagnation and worse, as an underfunded system increasingly fails to keep pace with current needs.
The situation has become particularly dire for an estimated 2 million Dreamers brought to this country as children. They have lived, gone to school and worked under the threat of being forced to leave the only homeland most of them remember. It is beyond cruel to consign them to a lesser-than status for so long.
How long? The efforts to provide a legal path for minors brought to this country without proper authorization go back more than 20 years, when the first Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in 2001 with bipartisan authors.
It's been an entire decade since President Barack Obama, frustrated at the lack of progress on the issue, signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That executive order gave dreamers temporary, renewable legal status and authorization to work. President Donald Trump rescinded the order in 2017, leaving Dreamers in an even more perilous limbo. Their situation became more acute when a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA was illegal and said that while current Dreamers could remain, the administration of President Joe Biden could not approve any new applications.
Biden said at the time that the ruling "relegates hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to an uncertain future" and that his Justice Department would appeal the decision. Statistics collected by the U.S. government show that more than 90% of Dreamers are employed, and nearly half are students. Many do not even speak the language of their original home countries.
Then there is the situation at the border, where thousands may cross in a day. Many migrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents on the spot, seeking to file asylum claims. According to the Texas Tribune, more than 5,100 migrants were held recently at a border processing center designed to hold 3,500. Border officials said in that report they had encountered 15,000 migrants in the previous week alone.
The situation may only worsen when pandemic measures that had allowed some control over entry expire. And yet, there seems to be little or no momentum for the immigration reform that lawmakers profess is so needed. There has been constructive, sustained work on potential solutions over the years, but it all seems to meet the same unfortunate end.
The same year Trump rescinded DACA, Tillis and two other Republicans introduced a bill that would have granted Dreamers conditional permanent resident status. Depending on educational attainment, "good moral character," lack of criminal history and compliance with tax responsibilities, the SUCCEED bill would have provided a long but eventual path to naturalization. That bill went nowhere, as did 10 previous iterations of the DREAM Act pushed by Democrats.
Though other details had not yet been formalized, the border-related items in the Sinema-Tillis bill were said to include more and better-paid Border Patrol agents, more funds for Homeland Security detention facilities, and stiffer penalties for migrants who missed court hearings, along with better and faster processing of credible asylum claims.
The proposal drew support from moderate lawmakers and several organizations — along with the usual criticism on both sides. That is to be expected. What is disheartening is to see even this modest attempt to bridge differences fail.
In a shrinking, aging labor market, the U.S. needs immigrants. Minnesota, where there are four applicants for every 10 job openings, is a prime example. We need the vitality and youth that immigrants bring. At the same time, uncontrolled, mass crossings into this country pose a danger and are unsustainable. It should be obvious to all sides that this system is badly in need of updating.
The Sinema-Tillis bill may have run out of time this year, but it is worth resurrecting in a new Congress. Debate it. Change it. But act.