Immigration Reform: Washington's Moby Dick
The longest government shutdown in American history ended last week when President Donald Trump signed a bill last Friday reopening federal agencies that had been shuttered since Dec. 22. The nation – particularly the 800,000 federal workers impacted by the shutdown – rejoiced, but only for a minute. And then the commander in chief said he might again let the agencies close if Congress doesn’t reach a deal on funding for his border wall by midnight on February 15, when the funding bill the president signed into law last week expires. President Trump put the odds of getting that deal done in three weeks’ time at 50 percent.
Based on how the immigration debate has unfolded in Washington over the last three decades, that figure appears wildly optimistic. Presidents from both parties have supported immigration legislation; “gangs” of Democratic and Republican legislators have assembled to advance it in Congress; and, in election cycle after election cycle and in scores of public polls over the years, Americans have made their priorities for comprehensive immigration reform very clear. Still, bipartisan agreement on immigration-related legislation has been almost impossible to achieve.
In fact, the last time a president signed a comprehensive immigration bill was 1986, 33 years ago. (That bill’s chief sponsor was Sen. Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, who, while eulogizing President George H.W. Bush last December, noted that “those who travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”)
Five years ago, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner outlined the failed legislative attempts to address America’s immigration policies from 1987 to 2013, and the trend has continued since then despite markedly consistent public polling in the intervening six years. A 2016 Gallup poll found 84 percent of Americans supported allowing undocumented immigrants the chance to become U.S. citizens and that only 33 percent wanted to build a wall on the southern U.S. border. According to a Quinnipiac poll released this week, 55 percent of Americans oppose a wall today.
The immigration fight, until recently, wasn’t between the two parties. Indeed, intraparty spats have been the primary reason immigration bills haven’t succeeded in the last 30 years. The views within the Democratic caucus were so different in the mid-1990s that former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who championed many progressive legislative priorities in the U.S. Senate during his tenure, even tried in 1996 to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. That legislation, which Sen. Reid later apologized for, went nowhere.
As The Post’s Weiner notes, President Bill Clinton attempted to reduce immigration levels in 1996, but then tried to provide a path to citizenship for “hundreds of thousands of immigrants” before he left office in 2000. The 1996 legislation went down because the president couldn’t agree with Democrats on Capitol Hill; Republicans blocked the 2000 bill.
President George W. Bush enjoyed a wave of Hispanic support in the 2000 election, in large part due to his support for comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Six days before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox to discuss that pathway. It was the two leaders’ fifth meeting on the matter in President Bush’s first nine months in office. Like so many policy priorities, that plan largely disappeared in the wake of the events that transpired the next Tuesday. After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress, focused on national security, tightened border security, and expanded the government’s ability to detain and deport immigrants.
President Bush didn’t fully let go of the issue, however, even though members of his own party accused him of supporting amnesty. Bipartisan immigration plans resurfaced in 2004 when, with the support of President Bush, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, and Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, pushed for a program that would have allowed immigrant workers to obtain temporary visas to work in the United States and would have provided a path to legalization for undocumented individuals. As The Post’s Weiner noted, that measure “died a quick death” due to conservative Republican opposition led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Two years later, bipartisan immigration reform efforts were led by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That legislation passed the Senate, but never got a vote in the House since GOP leaders preferred an approach that focused solely on border control and interior enforcement.
American voters at this point were largely unhappy when it came to immigration, but not for the reasons you might think. Voters were upset with the contingent of lawmakers who opposed comprehensive immigration reform. As the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has explained, in the 2006 midterm elections “Democratic supporters of comprehensive reform defeated enforcement-only Republicans in 13 of the 15 races” where immigration was considered an issue about which voters cared.
Of course, as we now know, this mini-electoral wave didn’t result in meaningful legislative activity in Washington. Despite the gains the previous year, reform efforts failed again in 2007 even though, as MPI explains “a bipartisan group of senators” – often referred to inside the Beltway as a “gang” – met “daily during two weeks of floor debate to defend the grand compromise.”
After that bruising defeat it took nearly six years for another reform measure to gain enough strength to be brought to the floor. In 2013, another gang, this time referred to as the “Gang of Eight” – four Democratic and four Republican senators – worked to advance the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Despite earning the support of more than two-thirds of the Republican-held Senate – 68 members – House GOP leaders never brought the bill to the floor of their chamber for consideration.
Incidentally, the term “Gang of Eight” historically had nothing to do with immigration. It referred to the eight lawmakers who sat on the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence and to the four leaders of the House and Senate. As part of the U.S. government’s systems of checks and balances, these elected officials, under law, are required to receive notice and briefings from the Executive Branch regarding certain military and intelligence activity undertaken by the White House.
To avert another shutdown, lawmakers must now accomplish in three weeks what Congress hasn’t achieved in 33 years: come up with an immigration compromise that can earn enough votes to pass in both the House and in the Senate, where it would need at least 60 votes. The legislation signed by the president last Friday created a conference committee made up of members of both houses of Congress and both parties to come up with a deal, and those lawmakers have already begun to meet. Bloomberg has called this group a team of “dealmakers,” not bomb throwers.
And while that’s positive, the odds are surely stacked against them as the clock ticks ever forward towards yet another government shutdown.