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On immigration reform, US has accomplished next to nothing in decades 

FILE - Migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico, in Eagle Pass, Texas, Oct. 19, 2023.
FILE - Migrants wait to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico, in Eagle Pass, Texas, Oct. 19, 2023.

Despite years of debate and numerous proposals, the United States has accomplished next to nothing on immigration reform.

In recent years, attempts to modernize U.S. immigration law have been made through a series of legislative efforts; none has achieved a significant breakthrough.

“We are nowhere and we’re not getting anywhere,” according to the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide for domestic policy.

Border legislation

Last October, Senate Republicans insisted additional aid for Ukraine must be tied to a bill addressing security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border legislation, negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators, was rejected by most Senate Republicans and some Democrats in February when Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump objected to it.

Shortly after the February vote, Senator Chris Murphy initiated talks with other senators to draft a bill that could receive sufficient bipartisan support, hoping to overcome opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.

The resulting new bill, similar to the bill proposed in February, failed less than four days after it was introduced.

Senate Democrats have repeatedly sought to add elements of immigration reform to spending bills. In each instance, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that immigration measures do not belong in spending bills, which can pass the chamber with a simple majority vote.

Cornell University immigration law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr says immigration reform is dead for 2024.

“For a variety of reasons,” he said, adding “immigration reform has always been hard to get through Congress. … Donald Trump wants to make immigration one of his key pillars of his campaign. So he basically killed the efforts in the Senate and the House earlier this year.”

According to Yale-Loehr, the country will not have any possibility of immigration reform until 2025.

“And even then, it will depend on who is the president and who controls the House and the Senate,” he said.

Under the Trump administration, Republicans proposed immigration legislation focused on stricter enforcement and reducing legal immigration. One major proposal was the "RAISE Act," which aimed to cut legal immigration by half over 10 years. Another proposal was the "Secure and Succeed Act," which sought $25 billion for a border wall, increased border security and stricter visa controls. Both bills faced strong opposition and did not become law.

These efforts, Galston said, were not comprehensive immigration reform.

“Look, the last time we had serious immigration reform was in 1986. … The border bill that was worked out in the Senate [last year] was only a piece, an important piece, but still only a piece of a much larger picture,” he said.

Galston said the country missed its best recent opportunity for immigration reform in 2013.

The Senate proposed a comprehensive immigration reform bill known as the "Gang of Eight" bill, named after the bipartisan group of eight senators who crafted it.

This proposal created a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, provided they met certain requirements such as paying fines and back taxes, learning English and passing background checks. The bill also sought to strengthen border security, enhance the E-Verify system employers use to check workers' immigration status and expand visa programs for high-skilled and agricultural workers.

Despite passing the Senate with bipartisan support, the bill faced strong opposition in the House of Representatives, where many lawmakers argued that it did not do enough to secure the border and might encourage more illegal immigration.

Critics were also concerned about the potential costs and the impact on American jobs. As a result, the House did not bring the bill to a vote, and the effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform stalled.

“The fact of the matter is that things have changed fundamentally since the last bill, which was almost 40 years ago, so we are trying to do immigration policy in the mid-2020s on the basis of legislation that was enacted in the mid-1980s,” Galston said.

In the '80s, he said, asylum requests were not nearly as significant as they are now.

“It was not even close. And that’s just one example of changes in the situation on the ground that really do require legislative response,” he added.

Yet Yale-Loehr does not see reforms happening anytime soon.

“Because it's so complex," he said. "We have a broken immigration system. Courts have said that immigration law is as complex as our tax law. And just as it seems impossible for Congress to overhaul our tax system, I don't think any Congress is likely to be successful in trying to reform all of our broken immigration system. … But there are bits and pieces that Congress could pass as sort of a down payment.”

Executive orders

“All of the action on immigration coming out is coming out of the executive branch in the form of executive orders,” Galston said.

Under the Trump administration, a number of significant changes were added to U.S. immigration policy, including restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries; a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal border crossings, leading to the separation of thousands of children from their parents; and the effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has signed several executive orders reversing Trump-era policies on immigration, including ending the travel bans, halting the construction of the border wall and preserving DACA, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors.

On his first day in office, Biden unveiled sweeping immigration reform legislation — the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which included a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The proposed bill did not go far in Congress.

Immigration and election

Immigration is one of the top issues in this U.S. presidential election, according to a Gallup poll released in April. Republican voters are more likely than Democrats and independents to consider immigration the most important issue. In the latest poll, 48% of Republicans, 8% of Democrats, and 25% of independents said immigration was the most important problem facing the country.

Ironically, the deadlock on immigration legislation has roots in the last major reform, Galston said.

The Reagan-era legislation was a compromise between Democrats and Republicans aiming to provide legal protections to millions of undocumented migrants while focusing on curbing illegal immigration. And while it worked to help people gain legal status, Galston said, it failed to effectively address the latter.

“And it was on that basis that immigration [reform] was defeated during the Bush administration. … And then again during the Obama administration in 2013, which really represented our best chance … it was a bill that did a lot of good things and it was very tough on the southern border,” he said.