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 — 77 percent said so in a 2017 poll by Quinnipiac University — although there are deep disagreements about what conditions they should have to meet to win legal residency or citizenship.
Prospects for an immigration overhaul in 2018 dimmed after the U.S. Senate blocked four different bills in February. These included a bipartisan measure that would have provided $25 billion for border security and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million children of undocumented immigrants set to lose protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA. Another defeated measure reflected a proposal by President Donald Trump. In addition to increasing border security funds and allowing DACA immigrants to stay, it would have imposed strict limits on family-based migration and ended the diversity visa lottery, reserved for people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. Trump made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, and one of his earliest executive orders ramped up efforts to deport illegal immigrants and stop others from entering the U.S. So he surprised many observers by backing rights for DACA immigrants, also known as “Dreamers,” named after an earlier bill first proposed in 2001 but never passed: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. As the debates continued in Washington, tougher enforcement had already driven down border apprehensions, suggesting fewer people were trying to cross. Farms and dairies have found it hard to fill jobs, since they’ve traditionally hired many undocumented workers.
Ronald Reagan was the last president to win passage of a major immigration law, 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 Democrat Barack Obama. In 2013, a bipartisan measure similar to Bush’s plan was passed by the Senate. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused to vote on the bill. In 2014, President Obama issued executive actions that looked to shield as many as 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation, but courts blocked one affecting parents from taking effect. In September, Trump ended Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order. Yet he delayed implementation for six months and called for Congress to come up with a solution on their status.
Democrats are more or less united on immigration, while Republicans in Congress have been split. Hard-liners favor the Trump proposals, including a wall built along the entire 1,933-mile border with Mexico. Yet the price tag — perhaps as much as $67 billion — has some Republican lawmakers questioning whether a complete barrier is needed. They say illegal entries can be curbed through more fencing, border patrol agents, drones and other resources. To deal with illegal immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for years, there are some Republicans who favor the 2013 Senate bill, a position that reflects the wishes of the business community. And some Republicans have suggested there could be a path to legal status but not citizenship, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. Others are wary of supporting measures that would, in the words of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, “create 11 million new Democrats.” Pollsters have noted that Republicans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric has brought more Hispanics to voting booths to back Democratic candidates; some Republicans fear this could lead to big election losses in 2018. As the political debates continue, economists warn that removing all unauthorized immigrants from the workforce could cost the U.S. economy as much as $5 trillion over 10 years — about the same as losing the state of Massachusetts.
The Reference Shelf
- Text of the 2013 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 apprehensions, and a history of the patrol.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics data on foreign-born workers.
- Immigrationroad.com put together a (large) flow chart showing the many paths to citizenship.
- Pew Research Center collection on immigration studies.
- Bloomberg report on Trump’s Mexican wall plan.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and diversity visas.
Mark Silva contributed to the original version of this article.
First published Nov. 15, 2013
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