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.
As 2014 began, the debate in Congress narrowed to focus on exactly that issue — whether the path forward for undocumented immigrants should lead to citizenship or just legal residency. The Senate had passed a comprehensive bill in June 2013 by a vote of 68-32 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 are met. The bill, supported by President Barack Obama, would also double the size of the Border Patrol and require employers to check workers’ legal status. Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, planned to have the House pass a series of narrower measures instead, starting with border security. After the government shutdown in October, he put off any action, given the surly mood of House conservatives. In January, he said he would push his caucus to support legislation that would toughen border security and offer legal residency instead of citizenship, then backed away from early action after his approach met with significant opposition within House Republican ranks. Meanwhile, the number of undocumented workers appeared to begin to rise again, after dropping during the recession.
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.
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
- 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 2012, 2012 apprehensions by sector 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 current set of paths to citizenship.