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US Immigration in the Twenty-First Century
Making Americans, Remaking America
Rodolfo O. de la Garza,
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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To our families’ immigrant heritage:
Luigi Ricca, great-grandfather
Clara Richieda, great-grandmother
Gioachino DeSipio, grandfather
Italians by birth
Laurence Walton, great-great-great-great-grandfather
English by birth
Sofia Oropeza, mother
Mexican by birth
Adelaida Traveria, mother-in-law
Serafin Corbelle, father-in-law
Ileana Corbelle, wife
Cubans by birth
and others unknown
Americans by choice
Overview of the Book
Chapter 2: Defining Who We Will Be: The History of US Immigration Policy
Chapter 3: Immigrants and Natives: Rights, Responsibilities, and Interaction
Chapter 4: From Immigrant to Citizen: US Naturalization Policy
Chapter 5: Immigrant Civic and Political Engagement
Chapter 6: Conclusion: US Immigration Policy for the Twenty-First Century
As we began this project, we anticipated that we would be writing a somewhat different book. The nation is long overdue for a major reform to its immigration policies and the outline of what a new system could look like has been clear for nearly a decade. With these conditions in place, our expectation was that Congress and the executive branch would find the compromises necessary to craft a major, comprehensive immigration reform bill, and that our study of immigration and immigrant incorporation policy would conclude with an assessment of this new piece of legislation itself, as well as a study of the political and policy calculus that allowed the necessary compromises to be achieved.
We were wrong. Instead, Congress has not been able to agree on a new direction for US immigration in the twenty-first century, and it is increasingly likely that Congress will remain in the current legislative stalemate at least into the early 2020s. For the past fifteen years, Congress (particularly the US Senate) and the two most recent presidents—Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama—have actively debated immigration policy and have identified a bipartisan set of changes and reforms to the current immigration law. However, no bill has been sent to either president for his review and signature. With the exception of added border and interior enforcement measures, Congress has been unable to pass even narrow immigration legislation. Left unaddressed are the needs of highly organized segments of US society, such as the business community, which claims it cannot meet its labor needs under the current system, or the needs of segments of the unauthorized immigrant community, such as the young adults who entered the United States unauthorized as children and subsequently went on to succeed in US society, and who have a compelling claim to legal status.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo characterizes the dominant opinions about contemporary US immigration policy across many sectors of US society—the business community, state and local governments, immigrant/ethnic communities, native populations fearful of the size and diversity of the immigrant populations, US allies abroad, and some in the national security community. Yet the status quo has survived and will for the foreseeable future.
Certainly, these sectors of US society do not agree on all aspects of immigration reform and any new immigration law will have to be a compromise for all. However, although their positions may be firm, they are not intransigent. The desire for comprehensive reform has created new alliances to advocate for it that were largely unimaginable a decade ago, such as an agreement between business interests and the nation’s leading trade union on a guest worker program that would be acceptable to both. However, even these new alliances have been insufficient to ensure Congressional action. In this book, we examine why it has been impossible to achieve a resolution to this debate and we assess what compromises will ultimately be necessary to reform US immigration law.
Despite not being able to offer an initial review of a new immigration bill—which would be the foundation of US immigration policy for the early twenty-first century—we anticipate that this volume will still be of use to analysts, students, and policymakers by grounding the contemporary debates and issues surrounding immigration in the history of US immigration and immigrant incorporation policies. This history offers lessons on how the United States has previously approached immigration policy conflicts within US society on who should be admitted and under what circumstances in the past. It also demonstrates how the United States has overcome these conflicts to restructure, and frequently expand, opportunities to immigrants, and how it has handled providing immigrants with the resources to become full and equal members of US society.
Policymakers often neglect the issue of immigration incorporation, though it tends to be the focus of those who oppose immigration. We consider immigrant incorporation to be of considerable importance and assess paths to immigrant incorporation from several perspectives in this book. We look at the formal process of how immigrants attain full membership in the polity: naturalization. We also assess the distinctions in rights and privileges between US citizens and non-naturalized immigrants, and between legal permanent residents and unauthorized immigrants. Finally, we assess how immigrants (and their US-born children) are exercising their political voice, both in the United States and in their countries of origin or ancestry. We believe that it is this immigrant agency that will ultimately ensure that an inclusive immigration reform bill is achieved. When immigrants organized en masse in 2006 and spoke out to defend their interests, they fundamentally changed the policy debate.
Although recent events could easily lead to pessimism about the prospects of immigration reform, it is clear that US interests in the issues surrounding immigration policy are simply too great for the status quo—which dissatisfies more Americans than it satisfies—to endure in perpetuity. We conclude, then, with a discussion of what will need to change in Congress and in the executive branch in order to see passage of a new immigration bill, though we now suspect that these changes will not appear until early in the 2020s. Predictions, of course, are dangerous in the political and policymaking worlds. There will undoubtedly be more mass and elite organizing around immigration reform between now and the early 2020s, which could change some of the dynamics that we discuss in this book. However, the coalitions that have formed to influence immigration policy and the issues around which they are willing and unwilling to compromise are sufficiently clear that we can anticipate, with some certainty, the shape of the ultimate reform.
If we began this project with the anticipation of an earlier resolution in Congress than has appeared, we are certainly now more pessimistic about the speed of the ultimate resolution. However, about the core issues that must be resolved and the shape of the compromises that will need to be reached, we are as confident as we were at the project’s inception.
Rodolfo O. de la Garza
In 2006, as many as five million people protested US immigration policies in up to 150 cities nationwide. Most who protested called for an expansion in immigration opportunities, and specifically for an opportunity for unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status. But theirs was not the only voice seeking to influence US immigration policy. Although less public in their concerns, a large share of the general public demanded a very different policy solution—enhanced immigration enforcement, and limited or no opportunities for unauthorized immigrants to legalize. A plurality of Americans also advocated a reduction even in current levels of legal immigration. Some who advocated restriction also joined volunteer militias along the US-Mexico border to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with federal enforcement of US immigration laws.
Other organized interests in American society also sought to shape the future of US immigration policy. Some state governments signaled their dissatisfaction with the current policies by passing an unprecedented number of laws seeking to regulate immigration and shape immigrant incorporation at the state level. However, some other states responded by expanding the rights and opportunities of immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, to use state services. Many in the business community sought increases in immigration, both of skilled and unskilled workers. These demands most often focused on guest workers, immigrants who would be allowed to work for a number of years in the United States but who would not have the eventual opportunity to become to permanent residents and, later, US citizens.
Each of these voices sought to shape Congressional debates in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2013 to make significant, perhaps wholesale, changes to US immigration law. As important as immigration policy has become, the many voices seeking to shape policy have not sought compromise. On the contrary, for reasons that we will discuss, interests have become more hardened over this period of mass organizing and Congressional debate (Voss and Bloemraad 2011; Tichenor and Rosenblum 2012). Perhaps not surprisingly, Congress has yet to find a compromise despite encouragement from both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations on the changes necessary to build a new, comprehensive immigration structure for the United States (DeSipio 2011a). Instead, the US immigration system that engendered this popular protest and public concern in the first place nonetheless remains national policy, and apparently will for the foreseeable future.
Our goal in this book is to analyze historic and contemporary US immigration policy with an eye to the decisions that Congress and the nation will have to make to reform immigration and immigrant incorporation polices for the twenty-first century. As should be evident even from our brief introduction, it will not be easy to find a balance of policies that will satisfy the many voices and interests seeking to change US policies. Key actors seek very different outcomes from immigration policy and there is frequently no obvious middle ground between these positions.
Before we get too deeply into the debates over comprehensive immigration reform, we need to define several terms and concepts that appear repeatedly throughout our discussion.
The beginning of the immigration process is a decision by an individual or a family to migrate. Migration is movement from one place to another. In the United States, we take migration largely for granted. People migrate from city to city or region to region for education, for employment, and often just for a change of scene. When migration—movement—crosses an international frontier, it is called by different names—emigration and immigration—though, at a fundamental level, it is also still migration. Emigration means leaving one country; immigration refers to entering another.
Because emigration and immigration require that a migrant cross an international frontier, the migrant must usually get the permission of the country of origin, of the receiving country, or of both. Historically, some countries have restricted emigration, though that is rare today (North Korea is an exception). Countries that restrict emigration do not want to lose the labor, skills, knowledge, experiences, or other assets of potential emigrants. Some countries also restrict emigration for symbolic reasons; they do not want to give the appearance to other countries in the world that their subjects are not satisfied living in that country.
Although formal restrictions on emigration have diminished, the potential for migration is not equal in all parts of the world. Transportation links make migration easier from some parts of the world than others. Patterns of previous migration from a region increase the likelihood that new migrants will come from that same region. Migration is often not an individual act, so the previous immigration experiences of friends or family members shape where subsequent emigrants go and how they adapt to the receiving society. Employers recruit labor abroad and relationships often develop between employers in an immigrant-receiving country and migrants in a city or region of an immigrant-sending country. Finally, emigration is limited to those who can afford the cost of international transit and who have a reasonable expectation of being able to survive in the receiving country. Immigrants, unlike the common stereotype assigned them, are usually not the poorest of the poor in their sending countries. The poorest usually cannot afford the cost of migration or do not have the skills to find work in the receiving society. Instead, immigrants are usually relatively more successful members of the sending society who feel that their skills and resources are not sufficiently rewarded in that society. Because there are many risks associated with migration, migrants often have a family member or friend in the receiving society who can offer assistance on arrival.
Compared to emigration, immigration is much more highly restricted. Few countries accept large numbers of immigrants each year. Even fewer accept large numbers of immigrants with the promise that these immigrants can become full members of the receiving society. The four countries that routinely accept the most immigrants annually are the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Each of these countries offers many of its immigrants the opportunity not just to live there permanently but also to join the country as a full member—that is, as a citizen. The United States offers “permanent residence” to approximately 1.1 million immigrants annually.
Each country accepts immigrants according to its own standards. Broadly, these standards involve three types of potential immigrants: those with blood ties, specific skills or wealth, or ideological congruence. The largest of these categories is blood ties, whether immediate or fictive. That is, some countries look for individuals who are related to citizens in the receiving country. Others seek people who share a common ethnic background or a common religious background with societal groups. The second category for immigrant admissions grants a higher likelihood of admission to people with specialized job skills or with wealth that can be transferred to the new country. Even countries that admit few immigrants rarely reject the wealthy seeking a new home, particularly when those wealthy immigrants are willing to invest their wealth. Although the truly rich are relatively few (and often not interested in migration), the educated and technically skilled make up a larger pool of potential migrants who are often welcomed as immigrants. The United States has always sought these migrants but is facing increased competition with other countries to win their loyalties today. The final category of people who are sometimes granted immigration eligibility includes those in ideological agreement with the leaders of the receiving state. So, for example, during the Cold War, some residents of communist countries could migrate to the Soviet Union for purposes of education or technical training; in this same period, the United States welcomed scientists fleeing Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, even if they had previously worked in Nazi Germany. As the salience of the world’s dominant ideologies has declined, this category of potential immigrants has also declined. Nevertheless, for some countries it remains an explanatory factor for high-profile immigrants (for example former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden was able to migrate to Russia after he released classified data on US surveillance programs abroad) .
With immigration often restricted to family members, the rich, the skilled, or ideologues, many potential immigrants are not eligible for formal or legal immigration. This leads to a second stream of international migrants, those who enter a country without the legal authorization to remain permanently. In the United States, we identify these immigrants as illegal, undocumented, or (the term that we use in this book) unauthorized immigrants.
Unauthorized immigrants in the United States are heterogeneous. Some are family members of US citizens or permanent residents. Others are people who have migrated to the United States to seek work opportunities. Some of these workers in unskilled or semiskilled positions that are shunned by US citizens, but others have advanced technical skills and find work in positions desired by Americans. Still other undocumented immigrants are fleeing political persecution or economic privation in their home countries. Some crossed borders without legal permission, whereas others entered with legal but short-term legal immigrant visas and stayed in the United States after their visas expired. Clearly, these categories of undocumented immigrants overlap. Economic or political persecution in sending countries can encourage undocumented immigration. US immigration policy often unwittingly encourages undocumented immigration by allowing some family members to immigrate as permanent residents even while denying other family members access to legal immigration. Legal immigrants, then, often facilitate the unauthorized migration of their families.
Based on our discussion of international migration thus far, the two main categories of immigrants—permanent residents and unauthorized immigrants—should encompass all immigrants, because an immigrant is either in the receiving country with the permission of the receiving country or not. Alas, international migration is, in reality, much more complex. For example, some countries admit immigrants solely for labor-related reasons. These immigrants are permitted to stay in the receiving country only as long as they perform the job that spurred their entry and as long as the receiving society needs their labor. These are guest workers. The United States currently admits guest workers in agriculture, entertainment and recreation activities (such as amusement parks in the summer and ski resorts in the winter), child care, and skilled workers in technology industries.
A second category of immigrant having neither the rights nor opportunities of the permanent resident, at least initially, nor the statutory exclusion of the undocumented, is the refugee or asylee. Refugees are individuals who emigrate in the face of persecution in their home countries. Asylees are immigrants already present in the United States who cannot return to their home countries because they fear persecution upon return. Most countries find it very difficult to define what level of persecution merits these statuses. Political considerations in the receiving country often cloud the objective factors that should guide the award of refugee or asylee status.
Most countries offer a form of short-term immigration for the purposes of tourism and commerce. Most tourists and businesspeople who travel internationally are not intent on staying in the receiving country and, hence, do not meet our definition of “immigrants,” but some immigrants intentionally use the opportunity to obtain short-term visitor or business visas as a ruse to enter a country and then stay on illegally. Although it might seem as if modern, technologically adept countries like the United States should be able to control these visa overstayers, many, including the United States, do not have this capacity.
Each of these three possible routes to immigration other than permanent residence or undocumented immigration—that is, guest workers, refugees and asylees, and those who overstay their visas—shares two characteristics: they do not offer immigrants the opportunity to attain a permanent status in the receiving country, and they offer some period during which immigrants may live legally in the receiving country and assess opportunities to stay and, perhaps, seek to change their status to something more permanent if they are eligible. Thus, although these short-term or conditional statuses do not offer the opportunities of permanent residence or the risks of undocumented immigration, they do expand the pool of potential immigrants in the receiving society.
A final category of migrant also meets part of our definition: people who are forced to move internationally. These are people who are removed from their homes to new nations for labor-related purposes. Specifically, these are people sold into forms of slavery and are transported abroad to perform that labor. We refer to slaves in our discussions as involuntary immigrants. As we will suggest, it is important to recognize that they are part of the immigrant flow during the period of their transport. In the United States, for example, the legal importation of slaves until 1808 (and, in violation of US law afterward) reduced the demand for voluntary immigrants. Since 1808, the United States has officially eliminated involuntary immigration. It, however, remains a component of international migration, including international migration to the United States. The US State Department (2005) estimated that six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand men, women, and children are trafficked annually across international borders worldwide. Approximately 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are children. The majority of involuntary migrants are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.
The diversity of legal statuses held by immigrants obscures one fundamental division: that between immigrants who have the right to become citizens of the receiving country and those who do not. Naturalization requirements vary from country to country. In the United States, most immigrants who become permanent residents may apply for naturalization after five years of legal residence.
Throughout our discussion, it is important to keep in mind this simplified outline of the transition from migrant to naturalized citizen that we have provided here. The complexity of the legal barriers and personal and familial change that accompanies the move to the United States assures that each immigrant likely faces many detours and false starts. Nevertheless, the basic pattern remains. We should also note that the path is not unidirectional. Many immigrants never attain permanent resident status. Others become permanent residents but never naturalize. Some of these return to the home countries, others emigrate to third countries, and still others die as denizens—long-term residents who are not citizens—in the United States.
Overview of the Book
Congress has invested considerable time and energy in debating a comprehensive revision to American immigration policy in 2006, 2007, and 2007, and made more limited efforts in 2010, but it has failed to agree on a bill that it could send to the president. Congress passed some immigration legislation in first decade of the twenty-first century, but this legislation primarily focused on one small component of the overall policy—enforcement—and has failed to satisfy the many public voices and business interests that have become increasingly dissatisfied with US immigration policy. In Chapter 1, we use these Congressional debates as a point of departure to analyze the various dimensions of “comprehensive” immigration reform. We assess why many in US society are dissatisfied with current immigrant law, what Congress has tried to do to create a new immigration policy for the twenty-first century, and the major components that will need to be addressed to enact comprehensive immigration reform. This discussion of contemporary debates serves as a foundation for the rest of the book. In Chapter 2, we examine the historical evolution of US immigration and immigrant settlement policies. In Chapter 3, we look at the rights and responsibilities of immigrants, immigrant settlement, and the relationships between immigrants and natives. In Chapter 4, we provide an overview of naturalization policy, and in Chapter 5, we discuss immigrant civic and political engagement.
In the Conclusion, we return to the question of the structure of a new US immigration policy in the twenty-first century. As will be evident, some of the issues that will need to be addressed for a comprehensive reform are central to the current popular debate over immigration, but others are not. Despite the consensus among executive and legislative branch leaders that the nation’s immigration system needs considerable reform, we do not mean to suggest that Congress will necessarily reform all aspects of immigration simultaneously. In fact, history would suggest otherwise (Tichenor 2002; Zolberg 2006). Instead, these pieces will eventually need to be addressed by legislators and policymakers, perhaps over a period of years. Whether or not they are addressed in Congress’s next effort at immigration reform, they will continue to be a part of the public debate over immigration and immigrant incorporation in the United States for many years to come.
Current Immigration and Immigrant Incorporation Debates
How Did We Get Here?
To understand the issues at stake for Congress and the nation in the debates over comprehensive immigration reform, it is necessary to understand the current immigration policies of the United States as well as why many in American society feel that those policies are not serving the needs of the nation. As will be evident in our discussion in this chapter and in Chapter 3, the many criticisms of immigration policy and its implementation often conflict with each other and reflect very different visions for the future of the nation and its peoples. For this reason, compromises on immigration reform are hard to achieve and the search for acceptable compromises has long vexed Congress and presidents.
Our goal in this chapter is to identify key existing policies, the concerns about these policies felt by organized interests in US society, and the possible resolutions to these perceived failings that have been or are being debated by Congress. With this contemporary public policy debate as a foundation, we conclude the discussion in this chapter by identifying the key compromises that will need to be addressed by Congress as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. A comprehensive bill is a piece of legislation that addresses multiple aspects of immigration policy in a single bill and is, by definition, a compromise that addresses the policy goals of multiple interests in US society. Because comprehensive bills are compromises, they require most advocates of the bill to accept provisions that they oppose as well as provisions that they support to ensure passage. We make no predictions as to when Congress (and the president) might make the compromises and enact foundational legislation for US immigration policy in the twenty-first century, but we are confident that the issues identified here will be critical to that legislation.
The Statutory Foundation of Contemporary US Immigration Policy
Although the roots of the contemporary system of immigration and immigrant incorporation policy can be traced to the nation’s earliest days, the statutory foundation was immigration reform legislation passed in 1965. We examine this bill and its implementation in depth in Chapter 2, but for our purposes of examining today’s immigration debates it is important to recognize two elements of this watershed law. First, it created the legal basis for large numbers of legal immigrants to migrate to the United States each year. Each decade, immigrants grow the country by nearly eleven million people, or roughly 3.5 percent of the national population (315 million). Most new legal immigrants are from Latin American or Asia and so are ethnically distinct from the current majority of Americans.
Second, the 1965 immigration bill signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson tells many people throughout the world that they will never be able to immigrate to the United States because they do not meet any of its standards for establishing permanent residence. Immigrants include short-term visitors and others who cannot stay permanently, such as guest workers (discussed later). Generally when we speak of immigrants colloquially, we mean immigrants to permanent residence. The 1965 law, however, did not create an enforcement mechanism sufficient to prevent unauthorized migration. Although enforcement resources have increased considerably in the years since 1965, the incentives to unauthorized migration (family members in the United States, job opportunities, civil strife in immigrant-sending countries, for example) have proved strong enough to overcome the barriers imposed on unauthorized migrants. The best estimates are that approximately 11.7 million unauthorized migrants lived in the United States in 2012, down from a high of nearly 12 million in 2007 (Passel, Cohn, and Gonzalez-Baker 2013). Approximately 51 percent of these unauthorized migrants are from Mexico. Other countries that send sizeable unauthorized populations to the United States include El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines, India, and Korea.
In sum, the 1965 immigration law guarantees that large numbers of immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—who are ethnically distinct from the American majority will immigrate to the United States each year and that this number will continue to grow in the future. This virtually guarantees that immigration policy in the United States will continue to be contentious. And although it is less discussed by political leaders or the punditry, the 1965 immigration legislation also means that successful immigrant incorporation policies are critical to the future of the nation.
This ongoing contestation about immigration policy has led to several major amendments to the 1965 immigration legislation, none of which has changed its basic design. We discuss these amendments in greater depth in Chapter 2, but here it is important to identify them briefly as background to outlining key concerns about the structure of US immigration policy held by the general public and legislative leaders alike. To a significant extent, the public’s perception that these earlier reforms have failed makes Congress’s efforts more difficult today.
In 1986, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The act sought to reduce unauthorized migration by requiring employers to document within the first few days of employment the eligibility of all new employees to work in the United States. The legacy of this legislation is the I-9 form that all employees complete when they start a new job. IRCA was a compromise and was passed only after several years of negotiation. This compromise provided for legalization of approximately two million long-term unauthorized workers (immigrants who had been resident in the United States for five or more years).
Another key lesson we can take from the debates surrounding immigration policy in the mid-1980s and the passing of the IRCA is the importance of agricultural interests in shaping immigration policy. In fact, the agricultural lobby continues to use its influence to ensure that it has access to immigrant labor. The IRCA included provisions for nearly one million unauthorized immigrants with short periods of residence who had worked in agriculture. Although the IRCA is often portrayed as a failure because it did not stem unauthorized migration, it did prove quite successful at ensuring that previously unauthorized migrants were able make the transition to permanent residence. By 2001 approximately one-third of formerly unauthorized immigrants had naturalized as US citizens (Rytina 2002).
Congress also passed major immigration reforms in 1990 and 1996. These reforms focused both on immigration to achieve permanent residence (legal immigration) and unauthorized migration. In 1990, Congress examined whether there should be an annual cap on the total number of legal immigrants admitted to the United States. It concluded that there shouldn’t be, and enacted a “flexible cap,” clever wording that meant there would be no limits for certain immediate family members of US citizens. Congress also enacted the Diversity Visa Program (discussed later) to expand the range of countries of origin of legal immigrants to the United States. That program has served as an engine for new streams of family-based migration since its enactment. Finally, in 1990, Congress expanded the grounds for deportation of immigrants resident in the United States, making it easier to deport non-naturalized immigrants who have committed crimes in the United States.
The 1996 reform sought to reduce the cost of recent legal immigrants to US society (though without much evidence that recent immigrants were, in fact, a financial burden). It added some means testing to immigration eligibility, making it more difficult for poor would-be migrants to immigrate to the United States, regardless of family connections in this country. It also increased the expectation that the immigrant’s sponsor—the family member or company who sponsored the immigrant—would pay the government for any public benefits the immigrant used. Finally, the 1996 immigration and welfare reform legislation also barred recent legal immigrants from eligibility for US social welfare programs for the poor.
Although these 1990s reforms shaped the lives of many immigrants and potential immigrants, they did not fundamentally limit growing public concerns about immigration. Public and legislative debates over immigration increasingly came to focus on the size of the unauthorized immigrant population in particular, the changes that immigrants were perceived as bringing to American culture and society, the potential national security threats from specific immigrants, and the costs of immigrants to US society and to native workers.
Immigration Reform in the George W. Bush Years
These growing national concerns and the increasing frequency of immigration reform legislation led to public and Congressional expectations that the George W. Bush administration would craft a more substantial comprehensive reform. These expectations were the result of several factors. First, the public was increasingly dissatisfied with enforcement of immigration policy, and was particularly concerned about the growing numbers of unauthorized migrants in the United States. Second, immigrants (both legal and unauthorized) were increasingly migrating to parts of the country, such as the South and the agricultural Midwest, that had seen few immigrants in a century or longer. Third, Bush had premised his candidacy and his presidency on a greater understanding of immigrants and Latinos than more nativist Republicans who perceived threats to the American economy and society posed by immigration, and who had dominated the party leadership in the 1990s (DeSipio and de la Garza 2005). Bush thus promised a more compassionate approach to immigrants while also making the more traditional Republican promise of ensuring that the business and agricultural communities would have access to the inexpensive labor they needed.
Early in his administration, President Bush appeared to be moving forward on his commitment to tackle immigration. However, in July 2001 an internal White House memo leaked to the New York Times indicated that the Bush administration was considering a proposal to legalize what was then estimated to be three million unauthorized Mexicans in the United States (Schmitt 2001). This proposal was a piece— undoubtedly the most controversial piece—of a comprehensive set of proposed reforms that focused on new border enforcement strategies, cooperation with Mexico over binational migration, and the creation of a guest worker program that would allow temporary residence and employment for foreign workers.
This memo appeared on the front page of a New York Times Sunday edition. It was evidently leaked by an opponent of the reform proposal, which demonstrates how controversial even these possible reforms were. Advocates of legalization quickly indicated that they would not support a program targeted only at Mexicans, and they opposed a guest worker program. The Bush administration had not fully developed these plans or yet built support among Congressional leaders, so it had to backpedal quickly and, at least for a short time, withdraw the proposal from internal debate. But even with the leak and the backpedaling, a discussion this early in the Bush administration indicated that immigration reform would likely move forward in some form. That possibility ended abruptly with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Bush administration did not return to addressing immigration reform until 2004. Even then many felt that it was only the upcoming 2004 presidential election that prompted the administration’s resurrection of the subject (Bumiller 2004). Critics from the right saw the revised Bush proposal—which focused on increased border security and a guest worker program, with no explicit discussion of a legalization program—as a poorly designed effort to win Latino votes in the election, which failed to prevent future authorized migration (DeSipio and Leal 2010). Critics on the left maintained their opposition to a guest worker program, a position that they might have been willing to compromise on in exchange for an explicit commitment to opportunities for guest workers to move towards legal status at the end of their “guest” period.
Had the Bush administration been as committed in 2004 to immigration reform as it had been in 2001, its new proposals might have served as the foundation for Congressional action. Admittedly, though, the proposals would likely have had a difficult time passing both the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives, which was growing increasingly resistant to Bush’s leadership on key issues. By this point, however, Bush and his senior advisors were not focused on immigration or building positive relations with Mexico, which had been part of their goal with the 2001 proposal. Instead, the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were absorbing their energies. The 2004 proposals put immigration back on the table, but neither the Bush administration nor Congress made it a priority. Immigration ended up not being a major policy issue in the 2004 presidential race (de la Garza, DeSipio, and Leal 2010).
As the White House moved away from a leadership role on immigration in this period, public dissatisfaction continued to grow. Security fears from the September 11, 2001, events and the steady influx and dispersion of unauthorized migrants amid the strong economy of the mid-decade added to public demands for action. Leaders in Congress seized this challenge beginning in 2005.
Criminalization: An Effort to Control the Legislative Debate
In late 2005, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4437, an enforcement-focused bill. The bill passed the House 239–182, with most of the support coming from Republican members. The bill’s primary sponsor, Colorado representative Tom Tancredo, the chair of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, used his advocacy of the bill as the foundation for unsuccessful runs for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008 and the Colorado governorship in 2010.
The provisions of the bill were heavy on criminalization and enforcement, including:
• Criminalization of unauthorized status in the United States. (This is currently a civil violation rather than a criminal offense.)
• Criminalization of providing assistance to unauthorized immigrants. (“Assistance” would include transporting unauthorized immigrants or concealing them from authorities.)
• An eighteen-month deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to obtain “operational control” over US borders.
• Authorization for the construction of a double security fence along highly trafficked parts of the US-Mexico border.
• Requiring apprehended unauthorized immigrants to be held in custody until their deportation hearings (in place of the more common policy of releasing unauthorized immigrants without criminal records on bond until their hearings).
• Reassigning deportation reviews of unauthorized, non-Mexican immigrants from immigration judges to non-judicial staff persons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
• Requiring that employers screen all new employees through a Homeland Security database of work eligibility within two years of the law’s enactment.
• Eliminating the Diversity Visa program.
• Withholding federal funding for state and local police forces in jurisdictions that maintain policies that prevent their police forces from reporting unauthorized immigrants or working with federal authorities on immigration matters.
This bill was an effort by the House of Representatives to shift the legislative debate in a more restrictive direction and to ensure that the more inclusive Senate did not set the terms of the debate. Although the bill could be seen as a legitimate response from the House of Representatives to the steadily increasing numbers of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, few expected the bill to become law. Some parts of the legislation would have been impossible to implement and legislative leaders realized that the Senate would insist on more balance in any legislation it considered. As Arizona Republican representative Jim Kolbe observed, “after we pass this, we send it off to the Senate and that’s the end of it” (Congressional Quarterly 2006). Kolbe was correct from a legislative perspective. The bill did not receive Senate approval and did not become law. When the Senate took up immigration reform in 2006, it did not approve the House bill or even include many of its provisions in the version considered by the Senate. However, that was hardly “the end of it.” The House bill engendered a massive public response, perhaps the largest set of public protests that the nation had ever seen. What was even more surprising about these protests is that many who took part were themselves immigrants and in many cases unauthorized immigrants, a group in US society that is least able to risk challenging authority.
The 2006 Protests and Congressional (In)Action in 2006 and 2007
The 2006 immigrant rights protests were unprecedented in their scope. Estimates suggest that these marches included as many as five million people who marched in more than 150 cities (Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars 2007). The protests were spurred in large part by H.R. 4437, which would have criminalized unauthorized status, thus ensuring that any unauthorized immigrant convicted of this new crime would never be able to immigrate legally. The consequences were not just felt by unauthorized immigrants but also by family members who are in many cases legal immigrants or even US citizens (most immigrant households include immigrants in various legal statuses). The provisions criminalizing assistance to unauthorized immigrants would have subjected legal immigrants and US citizens to prosecution (and possible deportation) for helping family members or for simply housing them.
Immigrants and their family members were not the only ones with concerns about H.R. 4437, though they made up the vast majority of those who protested in the streets in 2006. Employers and immigrant advocates realized how unlikely it was that the government would be able to develop the database of eligible workers within the two-year window established in the bill. The prototype of the database (what would ultimately become E-Verify, discussed later) was rife with errors and had particular difficulty with ethnic names, often failing to identify legal workers accurately because of alternate spellings of names. Civil libertarians objected to the notion of a national record of all citizens and permanent residents that could be abused for other purposes. The Department of Homeland Security did not have detention space to hold all immigrants awaiting deportation hearings. The goal of “operational control” of the border seemed farfetched, even to its proponents, and was left largely undefined in the bill. Few in Washington—including Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who saw H.R. 4437 as a platform on which Republicans could run in 2006, rather than as a serious legislative proposal—expected this bill to become law. Immigrant communities, however, could not be so certain that the bill would not pass. They needed to ensure that criminalization of unauthorized status was taken out of the political debate.
How did this fear among immigrants and their families translate into such massive protests? This national mobilization was made possible by a new organizational coalition that included some traditional immigrant rights organizations but added new institutional players: state federations of immigrant hometown associations, service-sector unions, ethnic radio, and some religious organizations that had not previously been involved in immigrant organizing (Bada, Fox, and Selee 2006; Benjamin-Alvarado, DeSipio, and Montoya-Kirk 2009; Pallares and Flores-González 2010; Voss and Bloemraad 2011). These groups cooperated to send a common message to immigrant populations nationwide: action needed to be taken immediately, Congress would listen, and activism would be safe so long as protests were peaceful and patriotic. The lesson of early protests, beginning in March 2006, served as a model for later and larger protests that continued until May. Almost all 2006 protests were family affairs, with several generations of families attending. They were peaceful and the dominant patriotic image was of the US flag and not images from immigrant-sending countries. At the larger protests, the message was sent to wear white, as it was nonthreatening color. Most of the protesters were Latino, though large urban areas saw somewhat more multicultural participants. In the largest cities, the immigrants’ rights protestors received explicit and verbal encouragement from local political leaders (Barreto, Manzano, Ramírez, and Rim 2009).
The organizational efforts ensured widespread participation, and protestors achieved their short-term goal of blocking the enactment of H.R. 4437 and its criminalization of unauthorized status. As the protests were taking place, House Republican leaders publicly backed away from this most contentious aspect of the law. They had been privately circumspect about criminalization for months, but the rank-and-file members of the Republican caucus were much more committed. The marches also shaped the behavior of Democratic members of Congress. They began speaking up on behalf of immigrants’ rights and proposing policy alternatives to the House of Representatives’ focus on enforcement, such as legalization of unauthorized immigrants. Up until the marches, Democrats preferred to allow immigration policy to divide Republicans and to make them appear more radical. Thus, the marches succeed in removing criminalization from the political debate for several years. At the national level, talk of criminalization has not been heard since, but in 2010, Arizona resurrected criminalization as an issue on the state level.
The 2006 protests and, more broadly, public concern about the tenor of the House proposals spurred the Senate to seek a more comprehensive solution to the nation’s immigration and immigrant incorporation policies. A bipartisan coalition in the Senate passed more inclusive legislation that explicitly rejected the criminalization provisions of the House legislation and provided, among other things, for several paths to permanent residence for the unauthorized. For unauthorized immigrants who had been residing in the United States since April 2001, S. 2611 allowed for an “earned adjustment” to legal status. Immigrants applying under this provision would have to work in the United States for six years after the bill’s enactment, pass a background check, pay back taxes, learn civics and English, and pay a $2,000 fine. For unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States after April 2001, S. 2611 would have allowed for a three-year deferred mandatory departure status, at the end of which the formerly undocumented immigrants could apply for permanent resident status. They would be subject to the same requirements as the applicants who had been residing in the United States longer. S. 2611 would also have allowed up to two hundred thousand guest workers to enter the country annually, initially with three-year temporary visas. After being present (and working) in the United States for four years (and after having renewed their temporary visas once), guest workers would have the opportunity to establish permanent residence (opportunities that were narrowed somewhat during floor debates on the bill).
However, like the House bill, S. 2611 failed to become law. The bipartisan coalition that had proposed S. 2611 held firm and it passed the Senate 62–36 with only minor amendments. The supporters included twenty-three Republicans and most Senate Democrats. The House held firm on their bill, HR 4437 (and tapped popular sentiment to add to the border enforcement provisions), leading to a stalemate that prevented any legislation from passing in 2006. President Bush largely stayed out of the debate, in part to protect Republican candidates in the 2006 election, but all indications were that he would sign a bill similar to the legislation passed in the Senate. House leaders not only refused to engage in a deliberation with the Senate, they sought to use immigration and their enforcement-focused strategies to assist party candidates in the fall elections.
As the election neared, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress (including supporters of the more inclusionary bill in the Senate and the exclusionary bill in House) realized that they needed to pass some immigration legislation focused on border enforcement. The early indications were that the Republicans would lose their legislative majorities in the 2006 elections. Each house broke up its bills into smaller pieces. The only one of these to pass both houses was Pub. L. 109–367, which authorized a seven-hundred-mile fence on the southern border of the United States and added staffing to the Border Patrol. This legislation passed overwhelmingly in each house: 80–19 in the Senate and 283–138 in the House of Representatives. Each house later supported appropriations legislation to pay the cost of building the border fence, which was largely complete by 2009.
The election of Democratic House and Senate majorities in the 2006 midterm elections raised expectations that Congress would be able to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 (and well enough in advance of the 2008 races to insulate some members from their votes). Congressional leaders, figuring that the debate in the House of Representatives would likely be more contentious, scheduled debates on immigration legislation first in the Senate. S. 1348 was the result of ongoing conversations between Democratic and Republican Senators and representatives of the Bush administration. Overall, S. 1348 was considerably more restrictive, and arguably proposed more fundamental changes to the structure of US immigration law than the 2006 Senate bill. Senate leaders hoped that this would allow for a compromise that would bring in moderate Republican votes in both the House and the Senate.
Like the 2006 Senate bill, S. 1348 included provisions for legalization of unauthorized immigrants. Any legalization, however, would be put on hold until the newly legislated enforcement provisions were in place. These enforcement provisions included completing at least 370 miles of border fence (out of the approximately 700 miles that was to be built), developing a fraud-proof system to verify worker eligibility, and doubling the size of the Border Patrol. In S. 1348, access to legalization was also more restrictive than in the 2006 bill. Once the new border enforcement provisions were in place, unauthorized immigrants who had been residing in the United States since January 1, 2007, would be eligible for legalization, and would have one year to register with the government. They could apply for a temporary visa that would last for eight years, at which point they could apply for permanent residence. During this period, they could work legally in the United States but couldn’t travel internationally. Each of these transitions would require the payment of fees and fines that would amount to several thousand dollars per immigrant. To attain legal permanent resident status, applicants would need to demonstrate that they could speak English. This legislation, then, would require a wait of at least fourteen years (and, most likely, several years more) for an unauthorized immigrant to be eligible for application for naturalization. S. 1348 also provided initially for at least four hundred thousand temporary worker visas that would allow guest workers to work in all parts of the economy. Unlike the 2006 Senate bill, these temporary workers would not have a direct path to permanent residence at the end of their service as guest workers and they would have to return to their countries of origin.
The 2007 Senate bill also included more profound changes to the structure of US immigration. If it had passed, it would have changed the allocation of visas for immigration to permanent residence to a system that would better reward education, job skills, and English-speaking ability, and reduce the importance of family ties to US citizens and permanent residents. It would have created a “point system” for the award of visas that would assign a specific number of points for each of these desired traits (education, English-speaking ability, etc.) Each year, the government would set a minimum threshold for the number of points necessary to obtain a visa, which would create the potential for annual raising or lowering of the number of immigrants, based on national economic needs. Family connections to a US citizen or permanent resident would likely no longer suffice to qualify a potential migrant for a visa. This would represent a significant change in the structure of immigration to permanent residence established in the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, but this point was largely neglected in the public awareness or media discussion of S. 1348.
Ultimately, the bill failed to overcome a filibuster (the legislative rule in the United States Senate that allows for unlimited debate on a bill, thus postponing a vote on the bill). The vote in favor of cloture (a vote of sixty members of the Senate to end a filibuster) was just forty-six votes, however, suggesting that even in a purely majoritarian system, the bill was facing an uphill struggle in the Senate (not to mention the House, where it would have faced an even more difficult path). Senators proposed 351 amendments to the bill, many of which were designed to reduce the likelihood of Senate passage.
One interesting fact revealed by these votes on cloture and on the amendments was that the Senate had changed in the year between 2006 and 2007. In simple partisan terms, the Senate should have become more receptive to comprehensive immigration reform. By gaining six seats, the Democrats gained control of the body with a one-seat majority. Certainly, immigration is not a strictly partisan issue, and the Senate votes on the 2006 immigration bill were not strictly partisan. Approximately 40 percent of Senate Republicans had voted for the passage of S. 2611 in 2006 (and several Democrats voted against the bill). The 2006 election, however, made support for inclusive immigration legislation riskier for all senators and particularly for Republicans. Newly elected Democrat and Republican senators, who had faced the electorate during the 2006 immigration debates, were consistently more resistant to legalization and guest worker provisions of S. 1348 than were the Senators elected in earlier years (DeSipio 2011). Of equal importance, Senate Republicans largely moved away from support of the bill and in many cases into outright opposition. The most prominent of these cases was one of the bill’s former lead cosponsors, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who in preparation for his 2008 presidential run appeared to oppose his own bill as often as he supported it, particularly as it became evident that he would not be able to count on support from many of his fellow Republicans.
A comprehensive immigration bill was never considered by the House of Representatives in 2007. Although the Democrats had also gained the majority in the House as a result of the 2006 elections, Democratic leaders knew that they could not count on support for a comprehensive bill from many moderate Democrats (including many of the Democratic surprise winners in the 2006 election) and that few Republicans would cross party lines to support a comprehensive immigration bill. Liberal Democrats were very resistant to the guest worker provisions that did not ensure a path to permanent residence but instead placed a high number of barriers to legalization for the unauthorized. Considering that President Bush supported the bill, this failure to achieve any sort of bipartisanship in either the House or the Senate indicated the low degree of presidential influence at this late stage of his administration.
After the comprehensive bill failed to overcome filibuster, supporters of immigration reform tried to divide the bill to further its most popular pieces as separate legislation, such as a provision to allow minor children who had joined their parents in unauthorized migration to legalize if they attended college or joined the military for two years, as well as a guest worker provision for agriculture. This first of these small pieces of legislation was known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. These piecemeal efforts at immigration reform also failed to receive sufficient support to overcome filibuster. After the failure of the cloture vote on the bill to provide legalization for the children of unauthorized immigrants (the DREAM Act), John McCain observed, “we are not going to resolve this issue until 2009.<el>It’s a moot point” (Congressional Quarterly 2008).
McCain was correct that the 2008 presidential campaign would move immigration out of Congressional debates; he was not so prescient about the likelihood of a debate or resolution in 2009. The absence of immigration reform legislation from the Congressional docket in 2008 can be seen as a tactical calculation by leaders of both parties to remove a controversial issue from debate in an election year. This served members facing reelection bids as well as the presidential candidates whose positions on many controversial aspects of immigration were more similar than different. McCain paid a price in the Republican primaries for his support for immigration reform (which he had cosponsored with Republican nemesis Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts), but he tried to use his past support of the bill, no matter how tepid in 2007, to win Latino votes in the general election.
Comprehensive Federal Immigration Reform in the Obama Years
With the Obama victory in 2008 and the expansion of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, immigration reform activists had high expectations for an early debate on a comprehensive immigration reform. This expectation was reinforced by Obama himself during the campaign when he promised in a speech before the League of United Latin American Citizens that immigration reform would be a “top priority” in his first year in office (Hotline on Call 2008). This deadline, however, slipped in the face of other priorities, including health care reform, economic stimulus, and Wall Street reforms, as well as international commitments.
In 2010, as the Democrats were preparing for midterm elections in which substantial Democratic losses were predicted, President Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership did promise that Congress would take up a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2010 after the elections, in what is known as the “lame duck” session before the new Congress is sworn in. Lame duck sessions are notoriously poor venues for controversial bills, however, particularly after the party in power has lost a large number of seats, so this commitment was seen more as a political gambit to retain support from Latino voters for Democratic candidates.
Both houses of Congress ultimately did debate an immigration bill, the DREAM Act. The act would have provided permanent residence to young adults who were between the ages of twelve and thirty-five (subsequently lowered to twenty-nine) at the time of the enactment of the law, who had arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen, and who could provide documentation of continuous residence in the United States for at least five consecutive years. To be eligible, these young adults would also have to have graduated from high school in the United States or have earned a General Education Development certificate. Applicants would have to be of good moral character, which covers a number of behaviors, the most important of which is not having been convicted of serious crimes (the specific crimes that would bar eligibility were outlined in the legislation). They would have to pay fees for their applications. Finally, applicants would also have to register with Selective Service (for the military draft).
The House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act. In the Senate, in a near party-line vote, the DREAM Act received fifty-five votes but failed to reach the sixty votes necessary to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. The failure to pass the DREAM Act in the Senate came on a day that otherwise will be remembered for its civil rights accomplishments: the Senate earlier that day repealed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” prohibition on gays and lesbians serving openly in the US military.
Recognizing that the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2011 would not pursue any comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the Obama administration began to explore regulatory strategies that it could implement without Congressional action. In 2011, it redirected immigration enforcement activities to focus on unauthorized aliens who had committed crimes or who had previously been given a deportation order. The Obama administration justified this change in focus by recognizing that immigration enforcement resources were limited and that the available resources should be focused on unauthorized aliens who posed the greatest risk to society. As part of this policy, the Obama administration asked that pending deportation cases against young adults who would have qualified for the DREAM Act had it passed be reviewed and held in abeyance pending legislative action or regulatory changes (US Citizenship and Immigration Services 2010).
In 2012, using its discretionary powers under the existing immigration law, the Obama administration established a new short-term immigrant visa with work authorization for young adults who would meet the qualifications for the DREAM Act. This program was called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Upon review and acceptance of their applications and $465 fee, DACA recipients are eligible to work in the United States for two years and would not be subject to removal for simply being in the United States without legal status. Initially, their status would expire after this two-year window, so, while offering some short-term protections from deportation and the ability to work legally, this regulatory change simply delayed a decision about their ultimate status in the United States. In 2014, President Obama extended DACA for an additional two years.
DACA did not address the immigration status of younger or older unauthorized immigrants or of young adult unauthorized immigrants who had dropped out of school and had not earned a GED. Although the estimates for the number of immigrants who would be eligible for this policy change varied from 800,000 to 1.4 million, just 581,000 were awarded DACA status in the program’s first two years (Migration Policy Institute 2012; US Citizenship and Immigration Services 2014).
President Obama’s reelection coalition included large majorities of the Latino and Asian American electorate, a vote sealed by Obama’s DACA program and the anti-immigrant tone of the Republican primary. Although the 2012 Republican nominee—former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney—said little about immigration during the general election campaign, his language from the primary followed him throughout the race. Perhaps most memorable to many immigrants and their advocates was his support for “self-deportation” as a strategy to reduce the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Obama’s growing success with minority voters led many leading Republicans to seek to temper the Party’s strident tone on immigration reform. Perhaps most notable among these was House Speaker John Boehner, who indicated in the days after the election that Congress needed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Boehner, however, did not control the House Republican caucus and a majority of its members continued to block any consideration of a comprehensive immigration bill. Periodically, Boehner indicated that the House would move on immigration, but he was never able to develop a consensus among his caucus on how to approach this issue. Had Boehner really wanted to pass a bill, he could have done so with the Democrats in the House and a minority of the Republican members. This would necessarily have resulted in a more liberal bill than one passed primarily with Republican votes—and would probably have ended the Boehner speakership. Ultimately, Speaker Boehner did not pursue this path.
The Senate was more active on immigration reform at the beginning of Obama’s second term, though, without the cooperation of the House of Representatives, it was unable to send a bill to the president. In 2013, after several months of bipartisan negotiations by leading senators of both parties (the so-called Gang of Eight), the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform modeled on the 2007 Senate bill with added enforcement provisions. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) passed by a vote of 68 to 32; the majority included the votes of fourteen Republicans, which should be seen as a remarkably bipartisan vote in what are very partisan times in Washington.
Like the 2006 and 2007 Senate bills, S. 744 comprehensively addressed a range of immigration issues. It changed the basis for legal immigration away from the standards enacted in 1965; created a new terminal guest worker program that would allow the new guest workers to move from job to job while their guest worker visas were in effect; required all new employees to verify their work eligibility through a national database; provided a path to legal status and US citizenship for many of the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States (and a speedier path to legal status for DREAMers); expanded the due process guarantees and right to counsel for immigrants facing deportation; and increased the funding for immigration enforcement. It also included a provision to hold any legalization in abeyance until the new enforcement provisions were in place (see Immigration Policy Center 2013 for a detailed discussion of S. 744’s provisions).
How was this bill able to pass (and with fourteen Republican votes)? At the last minute, Senate leaders added a significant enforcement component. This included $46.3 billion in additional spending on immigration enforcement for technology, an additional seven hundred miles of border fencing, and a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol. It is not clear that Congress was willing to appropriate this much additional spending or that it would have had the anticipated effect (nearly half of unauthorized immigrants enter the country legally but then overstay their visas), but this commitment to enforcement offered enough cover for moderate senators of both parties to support the bill. Senators were also aware that were the House to pass an immigration bill, it would undoubtedly be different from the Senate bill, which would necessitate the creation of a conference committee and thus allow for another opportunity to vote on the bill.
But the passage of S. 744 did not spur action by the House of Representatives. Speaker Boehner’s interest in passing some legislation was certainly also felt by Republican Party leaders, but this desire to move beyond simply debating the issue of immigration so that the GOP could make some inroads with Latino and Asian American voters was not felt by many of the GOP’s rank-and-file members in the House. They had few minority constituents and did not rely on minority votes for reelection. Instead, they had to hold on to the votes of members of the Republican base, who strongly opposed any immigration reform that allows for legalization of unauthorized immigrants.
This message was reinforced for many Republican members of the House in a surprising 2014 Republican primary outcome. In Virginia’s Seventh District, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader (the second most powerful position in the House), was defeated by a poorly funded, largely unknown challenger. Among Cantor’s weaknesses in the eyes of Republican primary voters was a seeming openness to the DREAM Act, specifically (and not more broadly to comprehensive immigration reform). Cantor’s opponent criticized him as supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and that charge was sufficient to weaken Cantor in a conservative district where he had been repeatedly elected (Kim 2014; Silver 2014). Few Republican incumbents wanted to risk a similar outcome, despite the message they were getting from their party’s leadership on the importance of immigration reform to the future of the party.
In the absence of Congressional action, President Obama could do little to address popular demands for immigration reform. Consequently, despite the demands for immigration reform from throughout the country and a willingness by some (such as unions, liberal Democrats, and the business community) to make considerable compromises, Congress remained stalemated, as it has been since at least 2006.
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