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As Bill to Overhaul U.S. Immigration System Stalls in Congress, Immigration Reform Movement Broadens, Ups the Ante

As Bill to Overhaul U.S. Immigration System Stalls in Congress, Immigration Reform Movement Broadens, Ups the Ante

2013 proved a year of significant highs and lows in the quest to reform the U.S. immigration system, with enough political and legislative twists to keep even veteran observers of Congress guessing and leave politicians and pundits confused about the prospects for enacting reform in 2014.

The year's high came in June, when the U.S. Senate passed a landmark comprehensive immigration reform bill that would affect virtually every aspect of the U.S. immigration system — from major adjustments to immigrant admissions policies to tens of billions of dollars more for border enforcement and putting most of the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants on a long but clear path to eligibility for legal permanent residence and ultimately citizenship.

The Senate's sweeping legislation marked the most significant action by Congress on immigration since 2006, when the Senate passed a comprehensive reform plan that later died when the House failed to take up the measure. With the momentum behind the vote, it seemed as if action might follow in the House later in the year.

But reform of the U.S. immigration system, which has been on the policy agenda of both political parties since 2001, has stalled anew. In November, leaders of the majority-Republican House announced that the chamber would not take up an immigration bill during the remainder of 2013, amid disagreements within the GOP conference over a way forward. Should the House fail to address immigration by the middle of next year, the issue likely will remain on the back burner until after the 2014 mid-term elections.

Issue No. 7 of Top Ten of 2013

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Comprehensive vs. Piecemeal

For months, House leaders emphasized that they would not take up the Senate's large and complex legislative package, preferring instead to consider "piecemeal" bills that address discrete elements of immigration reform. Over the summer, House Republicans introduced a series of stand-alone bills dealing with border security, interior enforcement, temporary visas for agricultural workers, employment verification, and green cards for foreign nationals with advanced degrees. Several Republican leaders also announced that they would introduce measures to provide legal status to portions of the unauthorized population. Proponents of immigration reform hoped that the House's passage of some or all of these bills would enable the House and the Senate to meet at the negotiating table to resolve their differences and reach a final deal by year's end.

But political support for action in the House became weaker in the fall for a number of reasons. As memories of the 2012 presidential election (in which Latino and Asian American voters overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, helping to propel him to his re-election victory) receded, the initial political urgency felt by some Republican leaders to change the party's stance on immigration ebbed. Meanwhile, Washington's focus shifted to new concerns over the budget and health care. And the 16-day government shutdown in mid-October further tested already badly frayed relations between the White House and congressional Republicans, and monopolized critical days on the legislative calendar.

At the same time, the party's far-right flank House members remained adamantly opposed to any bill that would legalize unauthorized immigrants. While the Republican National Committee and establishment Republicans say they recognize that their party must adapt to the country's increasing diversity, many Republican House members represent districts that are far more conservative, older, and white than the rest of the country, partly as a result of the decennial legislative redistricting that allows state legislators in most states to redraw electoral districts in response to population changes recorded by the census. For these House members, supporting immigration reform is seen as a politically dangerous position that may invite a primary challenge from the right in the 2014 mid-term elections, when all 435 House members must stand for re-election. The rise of the conservative and populist Tea Party movement may also have diminished the influence that business groups — traditionally powerful and generally supportive of immigration reform — have within the GOP.

Changing Dynamics in the Immigration Reform Movement

The dynamics of the immigration reform movement also changed. Throughout the summer and fall, immigrant-rights advocates hosted a series of rallies, sit-ins, and protests across the country, many of which incorporated elements of civil disobedience. Perhaps most notably, in early October, more than 150 activists, including eight congressmen, were arrested on Capitol Hill when they purposely blocked traffic. The mainstream immigration-rights movement's adoption of tactics previously used by fringe elements marked a notable shift away from the Washington-centric advocacy that for years had characterized its work.

The movement also broadened its base by attracting new players, including evangelical Christian, law enforcement, and small-business groups. Immigrant youth groups also began playing a larger role. Emboldened by their success in pushing for protection from deportation for unauthorized youths— an effort that culminated in the Obama administration's announcement last year of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program— youth groups played a critical role in mobilizing new members and cultivating public support.

Some of the young unauthorized immigrants, known as DREAMers, also championed a new and controversial form of civil disobedience at the U.S.-Mexico border. In August, a group of Mexican-born young unauthorized immigrants — some of whom had already migrated back to Mexico, and others who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in order to attempt return — marched to the border and demanded admission to the country. After U.S. immigration officials detained them, the group, known as the Dream 9, staged a hunger strike to call attention to immigration detention conditions. They ultimately were released into the United States pending adjudication of their asylum claims. Weeks later, a second group, known as the Dream 30, followed suit. While some activists lauded these efforts for shining a spotlight on the human costs of immigration enforcement — with roughly 400,000 deportations occurring annually in recent years — others voiced concern that they would undermine delicate political negotiations on Capitol Hill.

By mid-November, a coalition of immigration advocates began another form of civil disobedience, fasting on the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol in sight, for 22 days. Once their fast ended, a new group of fasters took over. While the original fasters did not achieve their goal of a House vote on immigration reform, their actions prompted widespread media coverage and support from a number of key officials, including President Obama.

What's Next?

As 2013 draws to a close, it is clear the vastly different House and Senate views over how to approach key elements of immigration policymaking cannot be reconciled. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, made clear that under no circumstances would the House meet the Senate at the negotiating table over the Senate bill.

Should Congress offer no sign early in the new year that it is moving to reform an immigration system that most acknowledge is broken in many respects, immigrant-rights advocates will almost certainly put even greater pressure on the Obama administration to soften the brunt of the country's immigration enforcement actions, though it is unclear how much further the executive branch may be willing to go. And business interests, including high-tech, will continue to make the case that the antiquated U.S. visa regime, which can be long, complicated, and expensive for employers and immigrants alike, is denying the United States access to necessary foreign talent at a time when other major immigrant-receiving countries have adjusted their policies to more flexibly admit the workers needed by their labor markets. (See Issue No. 1: The Changing Face of International Migration: Flows Are Increasingly Fluid, Diverse, and Unconventional and Issue No. 6: Faced with a Growing Global Talent Pool, Governments Review their Strategies)

The framework of the current U.S. immigration system dates to 1965, and the most recent changes to its legal immigration measures were made in 1990, so the need for reform and sense of urgency to act is widely shared. How and when action occurs, however, remain unclear.


MPI Research



ABC News. 2013. Eight Members of Congress Arrested in Push for Immigration Reform. October 8, 2013. Available online.

Fox News Latino. 2013. Immigration Advocates to Put Pressure on Obama to Act on Reform. September 16, 2013. Available online.

House Committee on Homeland Security. 2013. Border Security Results Act of 2013 (HR 1417). Available online.

Library of Congress. 2013. Text of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744), as passed by the Senate on June 27, 2013. Available online.

New Yorker. 2013. Killing the Immigration Bill, Polarizing America. July 12, 2013. Available online.

PBS NewsHour. 2013. Way Forward on Immigration Splits House GOP. July 11, 2013. Available online.

Roll Call. 2013. Boehner Says No to Conference With Senate Immigration Bill. November 13, 2013. Available online.

U.S. House of Representatives. 2013. Agricultural Guestworker Act (HR 1773). Available online.

---. 2013. Legal Workforce Act (HR 1772). Available online.

---. 2013. Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act (HR 2278). Available online.

---. 2013. Supplying Knowledge Based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas (SKILLS) Act (HR 2131). Available online.