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What's the History of Comprehensive Immigration Reform?


Immigration Reform Activists Lobby On Capitol Hill
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Question: What's the History of Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

In April 2013, the U.S. Senate's "Gang of Eight" released a 900-page proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. The details included a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million immigrants who entered the United States illegally.

(Read what's in the "Gang of Eight's" historic proposal to transform the U.S. immigration system and stop illegal immigration.)

The movement for reform spanned more than a decade.

The idea of a comprehensive plan for the nation’s immigration system began in earnest around 2004 when Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., began working together on compromise legislation.

The plan was to offer a balanced approach to overhauling the broken system: Republicans would get tougher border enforcement measures and the Democrats would get a path toward permanent residency for the 12 million or so illegal immigrants who were living in the country then.

There was agreement on both sides that the plan should also include tougher sanctions against employers who hired illegal workers. Both sides also generally supported a guest worker program that would provide a reliable and legal source of labor to U.S. businesses, without allowing permanent residency here.

The Kennedy-McCain initiative scored a limited victory two years later when the U.S. Senate approved the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., with a vote of 62-36.

President George W. Bush had supported the legislation and the comprehensive reform movement in general. But despite his support, the bill died quickly in the U.S. House as the political landscape changed with the approach of the 2008 election.

President Obama took office in 2009 pledging to push comprehensive reform in Congress but soon pushed it to the back burner instead because of the contentious fight with lawmakers over health care and the sagging U.S. economy.

After winning reelection and with Republican losses in both chambers of Congress, President Obama said he was “confident reform will get done” in 2013. He also said he considered not getting it done in his first term “my biggest failure.”

The blueprint for comprehensive reform has changed little over the last decade. The key elements are:

  • Enhanced border security -- The legislation would include funding to hire more Border Patrol agents and construct more monitoring devices along the Mexican border. It likely means spending more on more checkpoints, video cameras and fencing.
  • Tougher penalties against employers who hire illegal workers -- Businesses would be required to check out workers’ immigration status on the E-Verify data network. Employers who hired illegal workers would face significant fines and even jail time as penalties.
  • A guest worker program -- Seasonal workers would be allowed to enter the country, work legally for a specific period and then return home. The hope is that this would help satisfy the agriculture industry’s need for a dependable but intermittent labor force.
  • A path to legal residency and citizenship for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the country -- Perhaps the most politically contentious provision, Republicans have opposed allowing undocumented immigrants to stay here, claiming it rewards lawbreakers with what’s tantamount to amnesty. Under the draft legislation of 2013, the illegal immigrants would be required to learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay back taxes and pay fees for entering the legalization process. Illegal immigrants would not receive expedited treatment and would have to wait years to get their green card or U.S. citizenship.

Prospects for Reform in Obama’s Second Term

Supporters of comprehensive reform point to the distortion fostered by anti-immigration groups that the country is being flooded with immigrants. In fact, according to U.S. Census bureau data, about 12% of the U.S. population is foreign-born today, compared with the peak of 14.7% in 1910.

The large turnout among Hispanics and Latinos for the 2012 election has helped soften opposition to comprehensive reform. Many Republicans now believe they must get a deal to reach out to the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc.

“My expectation is, is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration,” Obama said during his first press conference after reelection. “In fact, some conversations I think are already beginning to take place among senators and congressmen and my staff about what would this look like.

“When I say comprehensive immigration reform, it is very similar to the outlines of previous efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. I think it should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we've taken because we have to secure our borders.

”I think it should contain serious penalties for companies that are purposely hiring undocumented workers and taking advantage of them,“ Obama said.

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