Immigration Reform

Immigration in the U.S. is broken. In a politically riven capital where Democrats and Republicans agree on little, they agree on this. About 11 million people already live illegally in the U.S. after crossing the border or remaining in the country when their visas expired. What should be done about them? That’s where the consensus falls apart. Most Americans say the undocumented should be allowed to stay — 72 percent said so in a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center — although there are deep disagreements about what conditions they should have to meet to win legal residency or citizenship.

The Situation

In 2016, there’s already been a lot of talk about immigration in the White House, in the courts and on the campaign trail. But don’t expect any action in Congress, where votes have been blocked in recent years by the House Republican leadership. Faced with legislative gridlock, President Barack Obama issued executive orders in November 2014 that could protect about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. A total of 26 states sued, saying the president had exceeded his authority. A federal judge ruled against Obama and an appeals court put the executive action on hold. The Supreme Court has taken the case and is expected to decide by June whether the president’s orders can stand. In the 2016 presidential race, Democratic candidates favor bills like a bipartisan measure passed by the Senate in 2013 that would have tightened border security but also created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who paid fines and met other conditions. Republican presidential candidates initially hoped to avoid the issue, even those who had previously favored measures like the Senate’s. That was no longer an option after 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.

The Background

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 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 far-reaching bill. That knocked what looked like a promising subject for a big bipartisan achievement off track.

The Argument

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 former House Speaker John Boehner’s approach of offering a path to legal status but not citizenship, including Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan. 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 2010 to 2016 and a history of the patrol.
  • A Bureau of Labor Statistics report on foreign-born workers.
  • put together a (large) flowchart showing the paths to citizenship.
  • Pew Research Center poll on American attitudes toward immigration.

Mark Silva contributed to the original version of this article. 

First published Nov. 15, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Kate Hunter in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at