President Barack Obama had endorsed a comprehensive bipartisan package passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate in June 2013, then watched as action in the Republican-controlled House ground to a halt. In July 2014, Obama announced he would pursue immigration measures he could carry out without congressional approval. To the dismay of Hispanic groups, he put that move on hold in September to try to help Democratic Senate candidates in conservative states. After the midterm elections gave Republicans control of the Senate and House, Obama issued executive orders that could protect about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation; states then sued to stop this. In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled the executive orders must remain on hold while 26 states sue to overturn it. Republican 2016 presidential candidates were hoping to avoid the immigration issue. That ended when Donald Trump entered the race with proposals for “real immigration reform,” including ending birthright citizenship and building a wall between Mexico and the U.S.
Ronald Reagan was the last president to win passage of major immigration reform, in 1986. President George W. Bush pushed for a bill much like the one passed by the Senate in 2013, but it died in 2007, killed by conservatives in Congress. In 2012, Republican candidates focused on deporting the undocumented rather than legalizing them, and the party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, opposed a path to legal residency or citizenship. That November, Hispanic voters cast 71 percent of their ballots for Obama. A post-election review by Republican leaders called on the party to “embrace and champion” comprehensive changes in immigration or face a further shrinking of political support. But polls showed that a significant chunk of the party’s base agreed with the Tea Party wing of the House Republicans that has blocked a comprehensive bill. That knocked what looked like a promising subject for a big bipartisan achievement off track.
Democrats are more or less united on immigration, while Congressional Republicans are split. To hard-liners, border security is the only issue that needs to be addressed. They were unmoved by an amendment to the 2013 Senate bill that would have hired about 20,000 more border security guards and required an additional 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Other Republicans are wary of backing measures that would, in the words of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, “create 11 million new Democrats.” But there are conservatives who approve of House Speaker John Boehner’s approach of legal status but not citizenship. There were even some Republicans who favored the Democratic Senate bill, a position that reflects the wishes of the business community. Meanwhile, 59 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters say the party is not doing a good job in representing their views on illegal immigration. And the Republican leadership fears that fighting immigration will complete the alienation of the growing number of Hispanics voters.
The Reference Shelf
- Text of the Senate bill and the Congressional Budget Office’s report on its cost. Other immigration bills, including House proposals, can be found here.
- Border Patrol figures on number of apprehensions from 1925 to 2014 and a history of the patrol.
- A Bureau of Labor Statistics report on foreign-born workers.
- Immigrationroad.com put together a (large) flowchart showing the paths to citizenship.
- Pew Research Center poll on American attitudes toward immigration.