Editorial: Where legalization of undocumented immigrants goes from here

After more than 30 years of circular conversations and legislative wrangling, immigration advocates finally came close to a mass legalization program, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough Sunday ruled that the measures could not be included in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which requires only the approval of a bare majority to pass.

We approach that nonpartisan procedural judgment with resignation, but also a renewed sense of determination that Democrats and President Joe Biden dig deeper into their toolbox to resolve a festering problem.

The Dems could choose to overrule MacDonough and torpedo yet another Senate precedent; wisely, they won’t, as the result would have limited democratic legitimacy. That doesn’t mean they can or should leave the millions of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status holders, farmworkers and essential workers twisting in the wind.

One of the best paths forward is the simplest: updating the registry date to make millions more American residents eligible for permanent resident status. While many immigration legislative packages have collapsed under the weight of their own complication, this elegant solution involves changing a single date in an already-existing law meant to allow long-term undocumented residents a chance to apply for residency, which is how many Americans imagine the system already works anyway. It’s not a free-for-all, as applicants would have to prove continuous residence and that they haven’t been convicted of certain crimes, among other things.

Though the long-ago cutoff date of Jan. 1, 1972 makes the provision largely obsolete now, it’s been the law of the land for a century. It was last updated by none other than Ronald Reagan, who signed it along with the most recent mass amnesty in 1986. Though the contemporary GOP may have forgotten, there was a time not long ago that there was widespread agreement about giving the undocumented a chance to join the American tapestry. Democrats should remind them of that heritage and press ahead. Today’s defeat must not close the door on progress for another generation.