Immigration lede

Swerving Path to Citizenship

U.S. Immigration Reform Takes a Detour on the Hill

By | Updated Sept. 9, 2014

Immigration in the U.S. is broken. In a politically riven capital where Democrats and Republicans agree on little, they agree on this. More than 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 — 73 percent said so in a survey taken in September by the nonpartisan 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 June 2013, the Senate by a 68-32 vote passed a comprehensive bill that included the possibility of naturalization for immigrants who pay fines and meet other criteria over the course of a decade — but only after specific border security criteria were met. The bill, supported by President Barack Obama, would have also doubled the size of the Border Patrol and required employers to check workers’ legal status. A year later, however, it was dead. Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had planned to have the House pass a series of narrower measures instead, starting with border security. But after the government shutdown in October and the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in June, House conservatives appeared to be in no mood for working on immigration reform. Obama announced he would pursue what immigration measures he could carry out without Congressional approval and requested $3.7 billion to deal an influx of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Central America, many of them unaccompanied minors or mothers with children. The surge brought new conflict in Washington, as many Republicans called for swift action to secure the border, while immigration advocates pressed Obama to make sure the children were not deported. In September, citing the “extreme politicization” of the issue, Obama announced he was postponing action until after the midterm elections.

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 recently passed by the Senate, 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. In 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 show that a significant chunk of the party’s base agrees with the Tea Party wing of the House Republicans that has blocked a comprehensive bill.  That knocked what looked like the year’s most promising subject for a big bipartisan achievement off track.

The Argument

Democrats are more or less united on immigration, while Republicans are split. To the House hard-liners, border security is the only issue that needs to be addressed. They’re unmoved by an amendment to the Senate bill that mandates the hiring of about 20,000 more border security guards and would require an additional 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, a package that backers say could cost about $38 billion.  Other Republicans are wary of backing a measure that would, in the words of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, “create 11 million new Democrats.” But there are conservatives who approve of Boehner’s approach of legal status but not citizenship, and there are some who favor the Senate bill. That position reflects the wishes of the business community — and the Republican leadership’s fears that fighting immigration will complete the alienation of Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing group of voters. More broadly, the Pew survey found deep divisions in the public between those who favor allowing the undocumented to apply for legal status now, or only after border security has been beefed up and on whether the status offered should be citizenship or legal residency. The country is also split over whether immigration helps or hurts the U.S. overall.

The Reference Shelf

(First published on Nov. 15, 2013)

To contact the writer of this QuickTake: Mark Silva in Washington at


To contact the editors of this QuickTake: David Ellis at  and John O'Neil at