Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Lack of progress on immigration reform

A path to citizenship for the more than 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States still out of reach


As a former border-state governor, President George W. Bush sought a systematic answer to America’s immigration problems, but found himself repeatedly stymied by the fallout from 9/11 and rifts within his own party. During the 2000 campaign, even The New York Times‘ usually critical editorial board said Bush “deserves credit for altering the tenor of his party’s rhetoric on immigration.” Bush’s platform said he believed immigration “is not a problem to be solved, but the sign of a successful nation,” and his plan for comprehensive reform included both stepped up border security and a path to citizenship for the more than 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. But by the time the administration began to lay out its plan for comprehensive immigration reform in 2004, Americans rattled by the events of 9/11 were focused largely on border security and enhanced enforcement. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans derided the “path to citizenship” proposals as an unfair amnesty for lawbreakers.

Despite what a White House aide characterized as “extremely intensive involvement by the administration,” in 2007 Congress voted down the president’s immigration proposal. The result is a patchwork of policies, state laws, and limited initiatives that has satisfied few. Without a functional federal system, state legislatures have enacted their own immigration measures, tripling the number of immigration-related bills both proposed and passed between 2006 and 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased workplace raids and apprehensions of illegal aliens, drawing criticism both from the American Civil Liberties Union and the business-oriented Chamber of Commerce. (Both organizations are suing DHS over workplace enforcement issues.) DHS is pressing forward with other narrow initiatives such as a border fence and the “no-match rule,” which pushes employers to fire workers whose names or Social Security numbers do not match information in federal databases. Although DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said recently that the department is on “on the road to victory” over illegal immigration, he also acknowledged that “to give us an immigration system that satisfies our economic needs and that is also humane to people who do want to come work in this country, we are going to have to go back to Congress and see if we can get comprehensive reform in the future.”

A report from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that the growth of the unauthorized immigrant population slowed starting in 2005. State legislatures continue to pass immigration legislation at the same elevated rates as in 2007. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but, in August 2007 President Bush said, “Although the Congress has not addressed our broken immigration system by passing comprehensive reform legislation, my administration will continue to take every possible step to build upon the progress already made in strengthening our borders, enforcing our worksite laws, keeping our economy well-supplied with vital workers, and helping new Americans learn English.” In the 2008 election, 9 of the 14 House Republicans who lost their seats were members of the get-tough Immigration Reform Caucus. If another opportunity opens for immigration reform, however, the Obama administration may not jump at it: immigration did not make it onto President-Elect Obama’s list of top priorities, which begins with economic recovery.

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