Immigration Reform Failure Déjà Vu

mccain-kennedy-350Even before he had the presidential nomination George W. Bush hammered home the importance of treating immigrants with dignity and respect.  And he wasn’t just doing this in Latino heavy primary states such as Texas or Florida.  He was sticking his neck out for immigrants and immigration reform in the small towns of middle America.

Once elected, President Bush sought to put into practice what he had campaigned on – overhauling our immigration system.  Between his inauguration in 2001 and the 9/11 attacks President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox nine times to develop a comprehensive bi-lateral immigration reform.

In the words of former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, President Bush wanted the “whole enchilada” – he wanted a reform that combined a pathway to legalization, a guest worker program, and increased border security.

On September 6, 2001 both Presidents Bush and Fox publically endorsed a framework for comprehensive immigration reform to be completed by the end of the year.  But five days later everything changed with the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Immigration reform wasn’t even put on the back burner, it was taken off the stove.

But in the lead up to the 2004 election, President Bush once again made room for immigration on the policy stove.  The first week of January 2004 the President gave a major speech on immigration.  He outlined a plan that would provide undocumented immigrants legal status and ultimately citizenship.

Once re-elected President Bush continued to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.  And he found his immigration allies in the Senate.  Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy drafted a bill that provided the whole immigration enchilada.

Senate Bill 2611, otherwise known as the McCain-Kennedy bill was brought to a vote on May 25, 2006 and passed 62-36.  While close to two-thirds of the Senate chamber ended up supporting comprehensive immigration reform it was not an easy lift.  The months leading up to its passage saw the effort falter and come back to life.

One chamber down, one to go.

Well, at least that was the hope that never ended up materializing.  The House of Representatives was not in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform.  They were in favor of immigration reform, but a one-sided reform that focused on immigrant removal and criminalization.  As such, in 2005 they passed a bill advancing enforcement-only immigration strategies.

And while President Bush and legislative leaders pushed, the House would not agree to conferencing with the Senate on a comprehensive immigration bill.  Eventually the House of Representatives intransigence killed comprehensive immigration reform

The parallels between the 2006 and 2013 failed attempts at comprehensive immigration  reform are eerie.

To begin, President Obama like President Bush promised from the outset of their presidencies that they would see to comprehensive immigration reform.  Their first term goes by and nothing – President Bush had 9/11 and President Obama healthcare reform.

During their re-election campaigns both men promised that this time they would get to immigration reform.  And once in office both executives turned up the political heat on their sister branch.

In 2006 Senators McCain and Kennedy led the effort at putting together a comprehensive immigration bill.  This last round we again saw a bipartisan effort, the Gang of Eight.  And like in 2006, there was drama that led us to believe that the bill was dead.  But then the Hoeven-Corker amendment, beefing up border security, assuaged reform-skittish Senators.  In the end, the bipartisan gang was also able to pass their bill, 67-27, with even a greater margin of support than in 2006.

And now we find ourselves at the exact same place we were at in the fall of 2006, the House of Representatives refusing to move on comprehensive immigration reform.  In fact, House Speaker John Boehner recently said that he has no intention of going into conference over the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill.  In other words, the latest round of reform is officially dead.

The House of Representatives has become immigration’s juggernaut.  It does not matter how much support there is from the White House, the Senate, and even public opinion.  The House of Representatives is unmoved.

victoria defrancesco sotoThe question moving forward is how do comprehensive immigration reform advocates re-strategize for the next round.  Perhaps the lesson learned from these failed attempts is to start with the House of Representatives.  It is the harder path – there are more members and greater electoral pressures.  But at this point, the House of Representatives is the missing piece that must first be secured before moving on to the Senate and executive.

If recent history has taught us anything it is that immigration must come from the bottom up.  If there is any hope of comprehensive immigration reform, it must start with the House of Representatives.  If not, we will be in the position of enduring a continual immigration failure déjà vu.

Victoria Defrancesco Soto
Dr. VMDS

Friday, 22 November 2013

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