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The summer 2014 death of immigration reform in Congress

After the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013, it was up to the House to act. For a while, it looked like they would. But they didn't. In response, President Obama fulfilled his long-threatened promise to take executive actions to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

Did the House take action on immigration in 2014?


In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill

In 2013, a bipartisan Gang of 8 senators introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. This was a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

It passed the Senate 68-32 in June 2013, but was never introduced in the House. (A bill based on the Senate bill was introduced by House Democrats in October 2013, but never acted upon.)

The Senate's immigration bill would have done the following:

  • Provide a path to citizenship that would take 13 years for most of the unauthorized immigrants currently in the country, and less time for agricultural workers and DREAMers.
  • Increase border enforcement by allocating an additional $46.3 billion in funding for border security, and requiring the government to double the number of Border Patrol agents and fencing along the border.
  • Strengthen interior enforcement by making the E-Verify employment verification system mandatory for all employers, and instituting an entry-exit visa-tracking system to prevent people from overstaying their visas.
  • Expand and streamline legal immigration by clearing up the backlog of immigrants with pending applications; create a new green-card system that merges family-based and work-based immigration into a single pool and assigns immigrants "points" to determine their eligibility; and create a new renewable work visa for low-skilled workers, with annual quotas that depend on market demand.

Many of these components depended on each other — the bill was set up so that the path to citizenship didn't kick in until certain security metrics hadn't been met and the backlogs had been cleared.

The 2013 Senate bill would have included a path to citizenship

The Senate immigration bill would have created a path to citizenship for the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country. No one would have gotten it automatically — instead, there was a process through which unauthorized immigrants could apply for intermediate legal status, then green cards, and then, eventually, citizenship. This would take at least 13 years.

Here's how it would work: once the Department of Homeland Security submitted a new plan for border security, current unauthorized immigrants would apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status. To qualify, they would have to have been in the country since 2011, pass a criminal background check, and hold a job. After six years, these applicants would have to renew their status, pay a fee, and demonstrate that they'd stayed employed.

Immigrants with this provisional status would not be able to apply for permanent residency — green cards — for at least 10 years. But if they got through that, and hold a green card for three years, then these immigrants can apply for citizenship.

The Senate bill included other caveats, however: the government wouldn't give out green cards to anyone with provisional status until a number of security measures had been put in place. That included the hiring of 19,000 Border Patrol agents, 350 miles of additional fencing on the border, an E-Verify system for all US business, and the implementation of an electronic entry-exit visa system.

How the 2013 Senate immigration bill would have handled border security

The Senate immigration bill would have provided $46.3 billion in funding for border security. It required the US Border Patrol to double the number of agents on the border within ten years, to 38,405. And it required the Department of Homeland Security to double the amount of fencing on the southwest border, to 700 miles. All of this would have had to happen before any unauthorized immigrants currently in the country could have applied for green cards.

The bill stated that within five years, border security along the southwest border should be 90 percent effective — which meant that 9 out of every 10 immigrants who the Border Patrol noticed trying to cross the border would be either apprehended or turned back. If that didn't happen, then Congress would appoint a commission of border-state governors to oversee border security.

The current system for legal immigration has different green-card processes for family-based immigration, work-based immigration, and so forth.

The Senate bill would have replaced all that with a more holistic point system that awarded immigrants with a green card based on a combination of factors: family ties in the US, length of residence, education level, and employment.

Half of all green cards each year would be set aside for high-skilled workers, and half for low-skilled workers. Immigrants who had already applied for green cards or who had been in the United States under work authorization for ten years would not count against these caps. Nor would the unauthorized immigrants who would have qualified for the path to citizenship.

The Senate bill would also have greatly expanded the number of visas available for high-skilled workers, and replaced various low-skilled visas with a W visa, which would be allocated each year by a government commission depending on economic demand. Low-skilled workers with W visas would have a greater ability to switch jobs than they do under the status quo.

House GOP leadership tried to get its members to consider reforms. They lost.

House leadership attempted to pressure members into considering immigration reform, but reconsidered.

The House Republican leadership released a set of immigration principles for discussion in January 2014. The feedback from Republican members in the following week was largely negative, however, and Speaker Boehner declaredthat his caucus' distrust of Obama was enough to keep them from moving forward on immigration reform for now. (A similar thing happened in April, when Boehner mocked his colleagues for being afraid to pursue immigration reform at an event, then apologized the next week.)

The most commonly stated reason among House Republicans for opposing immigration reform was they couldn't trust President Obama to enforce the immigration laws already on the books, so they wouldn't pass any new ones. This argument turned out to be a little self-defeating, since President Obama responded to the House's inaction by taking executive actions on his own.

There was also concern from some members of the House that any immigration bill they pass — even one that focuses exclusively on enforcement — could be reconciled with the immigration bill the Senate passed in 2013, which included a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Because a Senate-style bill could be assured support from most or all House Democrats if it came to the floor of the House, it would only have needed a few votes from pro-reform Republicans to pass. Many House Republicans worried that the passage of any bill would lead to a House-Senate conference committee that ended up writing a Senate-style bill, and that it would be hard to prevent the result of a conference committee from reaching the floor.

As much as anything, though, Republicans were worried about the politics of immigration reform with their base. And when Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in a shocking primary upset by challenger Dave Brat, who'd attacked Cantor for being open to immigration reform, many Republicans took it as a warning. After that, there was very little attention from House leadership to the issue of immigration reform.

After the House walked away, Obama stepped in

On June 30, 2014, after reports indicated that Speaker Boehner was officially giving up on immigration reform for the year, President Obama gave a Rose Garden address promising to look into executive actions he could take to change immigration on his own. And on November 20, President Obama announced sweeping changes to the immigration system via executive action.

The most substantial change extends protection from deportation to about 4.3 million more unauthorized immigrants in the US. Immigrants will be eligible to apply for three years of relief from deportation, and work permits, if they

  • arrived in the US before 2010, and arrived in the US under the age of 16; or
  • arrived in the US before 2010, and have at least one child who is a US citizen or legal resident.
executive action immigration chart

The Obama administration also announced changes that would expand legal immigration of skilled workers, which could result in 150,000 to 200,000 new workers moving to the US. And it announced an overhaul of immigration enforcement, including revamping the Secure Communities program (which enlisted local jails in turning over immigrants to federal agents) and the federal government's priorities for deportation.

For more on this, check out Vox's cardstack on Obama's executive actions on immigration.


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