Stalemate: United States immigration reform efforts, 2005 to 2007.

Author:Leal, David L.

The author discusses national immigration reform efforts in the United States from 2005 to 2007. The new laws proposed during these three years ranged from enforcement strategies, which focused on removals and deterrence, to comprehensive reform, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for many existing unauthorised (also known as illegal) immigrants. While the Republicans controlled both chambers of 'Congress in 2005 and 2006, the party was split between pro-migration business interests and more sceptical grassroots constituencies. After 2007. the Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate but encountered their own internal divisions and electoral concerns. In addition, procedural issues--particularly the need for a sixty-vote supermajority in the Senate--helped prevent a compromise from emerging. Immigration sceptics opposed legalisation, which they termed 'amnesty', while others criticised enforcement-only approaches as unworkable as well as problematic for the economy. While President Bush favored a comprehensive approach, the only legislation to ultimately pass was a 700-mile extension of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.


This article examines recent efforts to reform immigration policy in the United States. America is in the midst of a fourth great wave of immigration, and the nation is seeing major demographic change, which is leading to cultural and political transformations--and in some quarters, nativist reaction. Legislators considered a variety of proposals, ranging from the restrictionist to the comprehensive to the generous. In the end, after two years of negotiation and debate, the only result was a 700-mile extension of the border wall between the US and Mexico. This decision to incrementally extend previous efforts at restriction satisfied few, but it reflected the challenges of immigration policy, which some are now calling a new 'third rail' of American politics.

There is little doubt that the United States is undergoing a demographic transformation because of immigration. Over the last four decades, the Anglo (non-Hispanic white) share of the population has been in decline, while the Latino (1) and Asian-American populations have increased in a manner foreseen by few. For instance, census data (2) in 2007 showed that Anglos were 66 per cent of the population, followed by Latinos (15.1 percent), African-Americans (13.5 per cent) and Asian-Americans (five per cent). Four states now have 'majority minority' populations--Hawaii, New Mexico, California and Texas. Three additional states are 42 per cent minority--Nevada, Maryland and Georgia.

Immigration politics is now best understood as a function of the growing Latino presence in America. Since the 1990s, the American public has become increasingly aware of Latino population growth and its dispersion across the nation. This is largely the result of recent immigration from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. However, many Latinos trace their ancestry from the annexation of Mexican territory following the Mexican-American War (1848) as well as migration waves in the early and middle 20th century. In other words, Latinos are both a new and an old population. As you read this essay, a migrant is somewhere crossing the border, but her destination may be San Antonio, Los Angeles, or San Francisco--names that indicate the long-standing Hispanic presence in the United States. The economic, cultural and political futures of the US and Mexico are increasingly intertwined, but this does not sit well with some in the United States.

To understand contemporary immigration politics in the United States, we must return to 1965 and the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). This law replaced the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, which not only limited immigration numerically but also imposed racial and national restrictions. These laws, building on previous racial exclusion provisions (for instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), were designed to 'discriminate without appearing to do so'. (3) They created immigration quotas equal to two per cent of the overall US population in 1890, thereby greatly reducing the share from Eastern and Southern Europe and significantly advantaging those who wished to migrate from the UK and other parts of Europe. However, no restrictions were placed on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, Mexico and Latin American nations. This was largely the result of economic and diplomatic concerns.

In the decades that followed, the Great Depression and World War II further served to reduce and discourage immigration. However, immigration pressure built after World War II, when the Displaced Persons Acts, which added 400,000 migrants from Europe, and the Cold War changed the political climate on immigration issues. These developments led to a political interest in admitting refugees from communist nations, such as Hungary and Cuba. In addition, the 1924 restrictions no longer reflected the potential source countries of migration and the racial restrictions were an embarrassment in the context of the Cold War.

The 1965 Act largely abolished the existing racial-ethnic restrictions and established a new system based on family reunification as well as skills. According to President Lyndon B. Johnson: 'This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives'. How wrong this statement would prove to be. For instance, in the four decades after the INA, only 14.25 percent of migrants came from Europe.

In addition, the number of unauthorised (4) immigrants--often called 'illegal immigrants' in everyday political discussion--increased considerably. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates the number of unauthorised immigrants in the US at 11.8 million. (5)Almost sixty per cent of these individuals are from Mexico. Of the top ten sources of unauthorised immigrants, six are from the Western hemisphere (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil and Ecuador). The remaining nations in the top ten are from Asia: China, the Philippines, Korea and India. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of unauthorised entrants was approximately 800,000 per year from 2000 to 2004 and then 500,000 per year from 2005 to 2008. (6)

Immigration reform began to percolate in the early 1980s. After six years of effort. Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. This law was designed as a compromise between those who wanted to legalise the unauthorised population and those who favored increased immigration enforcement. The law specified a new legalisation process as well as employer sanctions. While enforcement never quite materialised, three million individuals were legalised--almost two million more than anticipated. This bill haunts immigration restrictionists, who worry that a contemporary compromise will lead to a similar result. As will be discussed, this makes any comprehensive compromise difficult.

Additional legislation was passed in 1996. This affected immigrant eligibility for federal social programs, increased enforcement efforts, added penalties and increased workplace screening. These laws include the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). However, none fundamentally altered the immigration landscape. By the mid-2000s, the immigration system was routinely described as 'broken', 'failing' and in need of reform.


Although immigration legislation was considered in 2004 and early 2005, these were efforts to attach amendments to Iraq war funding bills. Some members of Congress questioned whether this was the right approach. For instance, Senator John Comyn (R-TX) observed that the supplemental spending bill might get 'bogged down and diverted in an immigration debate, which I think frankly, we're not ready for'. (7)

As immigration reform efforts restarted in 2005, the most notable political dynamic was the split within the Republican Party. GOP members of Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, advocated greater enforcement efforts--encompassing new legislation as well as the more vigorous enforcement of existing laws.

According to political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, House Republicans wanted a two-step process, first border security and then a guest worker program, 'But you don't have to speak with many House Republicans to understand that many of them wouldn't care if they ever get to the second bill'. (8)

By contrast, many in the Senate advocated a more comprehensive approach, including a guest worker program, a path to legislation for the unauthorised, and renewed border and workplace enforcement. President Bush was generally sympathetic to immigrants. He had hoped to address immigration reform early in his presidency, but was thwarted by the events of 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq.

Because both chambers and the White House were controlled by the Republicans, Republican divisions were on display for all to see. Two core GOP constituencies--the business community and grassroots social conservatives--held very different opinions. Democrats, by contrast, were more united, although this began to change with an enlarged and more diverse caucus after their victories in the 2006 congressional elections.

A key player in the initial immigration drama was James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He represented the viewpoint that favoured enforcement, with further measures delayed until the border was secured and the unauthorised removed. His bill, H.R. 4437, was adopted in committee on December 8,2005 by a party-line vote, 23-15. It was passed by the House 239-182 on December 16th. Again, the vote was highly...

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