US immigration reform: from G.W. Bush to B.H. Obama.

Author:McDonald, William F.

The author describes attempts to introduce laws in the United States which would control illegal immigration. He focuses on reforms that the Bush administration tried to introduce, and failed, and on the criteria that successful reforms under the Obama administration would have to meet. He demonstrates the complexity of the political situation and, in so doing, shows why it is that effective reform is unlikely.


One of the first problems of dealing with immigration reform is coming to grips with the language. In Washington, sharp debates often ensue over the meaning of words. President George W. Bush insisted that his legislation was not an 'amnesty'. (1) Opponents like Pat Buchanan insisted it was an amnesty, 'pure and simple'. But, of course, there was nothing pure or simple about that debate.

President Bush's bill called for comprehensive reform that would have coupled together tougher border enforcement measures and tougher crackdowns on employers of illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants, plus a new guest-worker system and dramatic changes to the system of legal migration.

This article addresses four questions:

  1. Why did the Bush reform fail?

  2. Will the US be able to get an effective comprehensive reform with an amnesty in the future?

  3. What are the elements needed for an effective immigration reform?

  4. What are the prospects for an effective reform under Obama?


Why the Bush reform failed

The comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2007 was sunk because several forces converged into a perfect storm. It is unlikely that precisely the same set of forces will occur in the future. Yet, one of them--a new and a potent one--will probably have to be reckoned with again, namely, effective opposition from activists who claimed to speak for the general public, those Liliputian Americans whose wishes regarding immigration policy have been repeatedly ignored. These conservative activists carried the day although their views did not reflect general public opinion found in the polls.

Why did this not happen to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986? Demographics, culture, technology and a certain kind of president! In 1986, Americans believed the border was out of control and they wanted immigration restricted. (2) But two barriers prevented them from squelching IRCA: (1) The general public was much more insulated from the realities associated with immigration in 1986 than was the case in 2007; and (2) Congress was more insulated from the general public and advocates claiming to represent the public. Those barriers no longer exist.

The social consequences of immigration in the 1970s and 1980s were a lived reality only for those people living in certain areas of the country, the big six immigration states. (3) Since the 1990s, immigrant communities have sprouted up everywhere. With them have come rapid changes that many people have said they find threatening and alarming.

Simple things like walking into your local Wal-Mart and suddenly realising that you are the only Caucasian in a sea of Latinos; (4) or, being the target of some whistles and catcalls from those foreign men who hang around together drinking, laughing and talking in a language you don't understand; or, having forty people living in the two-bedroom house next door, barbequing goats, letting chickens run free and playing that damn music all night. (5) And, worst of all, they may be in the country illegally.

Compared to 1986, today's frustration with the federal government's failure to control immigration is felt directly. It has boiled over into a massive backlash. Grandmothers are manning the protest lines. State and local governments have moved aggressively to fill the void. By April of 2007 over one thousand immigration bills--in all 50 state capitols--had been introduced, up from a total of 570 for all of last year. (6) By then eighteen states had already enacted 57 of these bills. (7) However, for the entire year 576 immigration-related bills out of 1,059 bills introduced were enacted. Of these all expanded immigrant rights rather than contracted them. (8)

It is noteworthy that many of these efforts have occurred in small towns and suburbs far from the border, places like Hazleton, Pennsylvania--where the Hispanic population jumped from five per cent to 30 per cent in six years. (9) In 2006 its City Council passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act which imposes a $1,000 a day fine on landlords who rent to an illegal immigrant and revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires one. (10)

In 2007 after the Senate killed immigration reform, Prince William County, Virginia approved several anti-illegal-immigrant measures including denying them public services and directing the police to check the immigration status of anyone in custody whom they suspect to be unauthorised. (11)

The impatience of the American public with the federal government's failure to control illegal immigration continues to boil over. The Arizona legislature has enacted the toughest immigration law in generations. It makes the failure to carry documents proving legal immigration status a crime and it gives local police broad authority to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. (12) There are efforts afoot to copy the law in 20 other states; (13) and the majority of Americans favor it. (14) The Obama administration has succeeded in getting a temporary injunction to prevent the implementation of the Arizona law. (15) The State of Arizona has appealed the ruling. The case is expected to go eventually to the US Supreme Court.

The backlash should be no surprise. Since 1996 the percentage of Hispanic students in Prince William County's school system, for example, had jumped from 6.6 to 24.2 per cent. (16) Perhaps more telling is the dramatic rise in chicken violations--that is, the number of violations of the county's zoning regulations banning farm animals from residential neighborhoods. They soared from a mere three in 2004 to 32 in 2006, a whopping 1,000 percent increase! (17) That's a lot of chicken feed!

Scholars such as Peter Schuck and Daniel Tichenor note that for many years there has been an enormous disconnect between the preferences of most ordinary citizens and immigration policy outcomes from Congress. (18) Surveys indicate that the general public has almost always favored either more restrictive immigration policies or at least no further expansion of immigration. (19) Yet, virtually all immigration policy reforms for decades have been consistently expansionist. (20)

Surveys also have shown that there is a enormous gap between elites and the general public regarding their immigration policy preferences. (21) Elites are expansionist. The general public is restrictionist. Columnist David Brooks argues that this difference reflects a newly emerging culture war, one between the more educated and the less educated. (22) Quoting with approval sociologist Manuel Castells' generalisation that 'Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local', Brooks says that '[p]eople with university educations favor intermingling. People with neighborhood values favor assimilation'. (23)

Even today, the people's voices have yet to be heard undistorted by advocates. The expansionist immigration policies have been driven by special interests both on the right and on the left. The right favors guestworker programs and fewer burdens on business. The left favors family reunification, nondiscrimination, greater welfare benefits and a path to legalisation. (24) But both sides favor expansionist policies. Even labor unions have become pro-immigration. (25)

Against this army of expansionist interests, organised opposition has been puny. The old nativist and xenophobic organisations are gone. A few low immigration organisations have carried on a rear guard action. But they have not been a political counterforce to the dominant expansionists.

The new counterforce that came roaring onto the scene this year is the voice of some (if not all) of the people. It was aroused by a new cultural phenomenon, the conservative talk shows, and with the help of the new technology of faxes, blogs and emails. (26) It breached the barrier that had once insulated Congress. Today we live in a Lou Dobbesian (27) state of nature in which individuals can easily bombard Congress with electronic messages that are nasty, brutish and short.

This new force in immigration politics is not likely to fade away. But whether it will be able to trump the powerful expansionist forces in the future probably depends upon the last factor in our perfect storm, namely a president who was so politically weak because of his disastrous foreign policy that he could not rally his party and who was so deluded with his political capital as to think that he could get controversial legislation enacted without the backing of some politically-balanced commission of experts who could provide needed political cover.

Readers acquainted with American immigration politics may recall that, in 1986, IRCA contained two controversial provisions: employer sanctions--which the right opposed--and an amnesty--which the general public did not oppose. Congress had cleverly hidden this wolf in sheep's clothing. They called it 'legalization' and sold it as a crackdown with tighter security at the border and tough penalties for employers of illegal workers. (28) In the late 1970s when these provisions were first being considered, a broad-based panel of political leaders and experts was created by Congress precisely for the purpose of averting a political backlash against immigration. (29) This strategy succeeded because there were no conservative stealth bombers to blow it apart.

This panel, the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP), was described by its sponsors as a panel that would 'offer broad expertise and prudent...

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