Immigration Reform

By | Updated Jan 20, 2017 5:03 PM UTC

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 unlawfully 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 — 75 percent said so in a 2016 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

The new president, Republican Donald Trump, made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. He pledged to build an impenetrable wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out the people “taking our jobs” and to immediately round up and deport “criminal aliens.” He’s also said he’ll terminate the executive orders of his Democratic predecessor, President Barack Obama, which looked to shield as many as 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court divided 4-4 over those orders and then refused to reconsider the case in October. This left intact an appeals court ruling that said Obama overstepped his authority, along with a trial judge’s order preventing the program from taking effect. Obama had acted after a series of votes on immigration reform were blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

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 in 2007 that would have tightened border security while creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who paid fines and met other conditions, but it was 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. In 2013, a bipartisan measure similar to Bush’s plan was passed by the Senate. But polls showed that a significant chunk of Republicans opposed offering a path to citizenship; the Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused to vote on the bill. 

The Argument

Democrats are more or less united on immigration, while congressional Republicans have been split. To hard-liners, border security is the only issue that needs to be addressed. Yet some Republican lawmakers are balking at the costs to build a wall along the entire 1,933-mile border with Mexico. They say illegal entries can be curbed through more fencing, border patrol agents, drones and other resources. Some Republicans had favored the 2013 Senate bill, a position that reflects the wishes of the business community. Other Republicans are wary of supporting measures that would, in the words of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, “create 11 million new Democrats.” And there are conservatives who approve of offering a path to legal status but not citizenship, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. And there are Republicans who fear that the continued fight over immigration reform risks driving more of the growing number of Hispanics voters into the arms of the Democrats. 

The Reference Shelf

  • Donald Trump lays out his position on immigration reform.
  • 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) flow chart 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