Reform of the U.S. immigration system has been an elusive goal for more than a decade. Opportunities for major legislative change ran aground in the 2000s first as a result of the 9/11 attacks and later over the contentious and complicated question of offering legal status to the nation's significant population of unauthorized immigrants.
But as 2012 draws to a close, it appears that substantive reform could be back on the agenda in 2013 for the Obama administration and Congress.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's defeat at the polls, which owed in part to a pronounced move by Hispanic and Asian voters toward the Democratic camp, has prompted significant soul-searching in the Republican Party, particularly among party leaders and pundits who fear that the party has alienated itself from important new voting blocs as a result of its anti-immigration rhetoric.
Polls conducted on and after Election Day have also received considerable attention in postelection commentary, reflecting a sizeable majority of voters supports giving most unauthorized immigrant workers a chance to apply for legal status.
Even before the election results came in, however, there were some signs of possible realignment on U.S. immigration policy within both political parties.
In September, the House of Representatives considered but failed to pass legislation that would provide lawful permanent residence to international students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Many Democrats opposed the Republican-drafted bill because it would have provided the STEM visas by abolishing the Diversity Visa lottery that provides 50,000 green cards annually to immigrants from countries with only small immigration flows to the United States. The House took up the STEM bill again in November and approved it; but with the Senate not moving to consider it before year's end, the matter remains unresolved and likely on the agenda for 2013. Still, its consideration marked recognition within both political parties that the United States can do more to use immigration policy as a tool of economic competitiveness.
Earlier in the year, Republican Party platforms in the staunchly conservative states of Texas and Utah included language supportive of temporary worker programs — a victory for business-oriented Republicans who fear that industries such as agriculture will lose their workforces amid heightened immigration enforcement and dramatically reduced flows of unauthorized migrants.
In November, voters in Maryland approved by a sizeable margin a ballot referendum granting in-state college tuition rates to unauthorized immigrant students. Although a number of states have similarly extended in-state tuition to their unauthorized immigrant students, this represented the first time that an electorate had considered and approved such a measure.
While these views and actions hint at the possibility for a break in the deadlock over immigration reform, debate undoubtedly will prove tremendously contentious and the prospects for enacting legislation remain far from guaranteed. With a Republican majority and still-strong tea party representation in the House, it will be particularly difficult to muster sufficient bipartisan support in that body to pass a major reform bill. Legalization is likely to remain the most contentious of the three core elements of comprehensive immigration reform. The others are increased enforcement — both border and employer — and future immigration flows to meet labor market needs.
With both political parties feeling pressure from Latino and other constituencies, immigration reform is expected to be back on the table in the 113th Congress that begins in January for the first time since ambitious bills foundered in the Senate in 2006 and 2007.
Meanwhile, immigration enforcement at the U.S. borders and within the country's interior have become ever more robust, with record numbers of unauthorized immigrants being deported annually. And key business interests are clamoring for reform of the legal immigration system, so they can gain access to human capital globally.