Congressional Leaders Pledge Bipartisan Immigration Reform Effort

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - When the new 110th Congress convened January 4, the Senate leadership made a bipartisan commitment to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, picking up a theme sounded by President Bush in May 2006.

Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada and the new Senate majority leader, announced immigration reform is one of his party’s top 10 legislative priorities in this Congress. “Our borders remain unsecured,” said Reid in his first speech to the Senate January 4. “Our laws remain underenforced. And we have 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.”

He said the Democrats would propose legislation that will “take a comprehensive approach to repairing this broken system. With tough and smart reforms, it will secure our borders, crack down on enforcement, and lay out a path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants already living here.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said immigration is “one of the most pressing issues of our day. We should be daring about immigration reform - and act on it soon.”

Legal immigration to the United States has grown substantially in recent decades - from 3.3 million in the 1960s to 9.1 million in the 1990s - and Mexicans constitute by far the largest immigrant group, according to the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  The State Department reports that between 2000 and 2005, 3.7 million immigrants became citizens and the United States granted legal permanent residence to 5.8 million people.

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the United States vary widely.  The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group, calculates an unauthorized population of 11.5 to 12 million as of March 2006, based on Census Bureau and other data.

According to Gordon Hanson of the University of California-San Diego, a leading scholar on illegal migration who spoke January 8 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, some estimates go as high as 20 million, but no one really knows the exact figure.  Hanson supports estimates of approximately 11 million illegal immigrants, with 6.2 million coming from Mexico.

Over the past 15 years, Hanson said, enforcement spending by the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection has increased fivefold without any appreciable effect on the annual net inflow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, which he estimated at 300,000 per year. This illegal immigration is driven primarily by the large gap in relative income between Mexico and the United States, he said, but migration networks also play a role, with earlier arrivals helping later ones.

Immediately after the 2006 midterm elections shifted control of key subcommittees on immigration from the Republicans to the Democrats, Bush expressed optimism about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. "I think we have a good chance," he said November 8. "It's an important issue and I hope we can get something done on it."

Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the new majority leader of the House of Representatives, said January 7 that Bush has told Democratic leaders he expects to have “a lot easier time” dealing with them on immigration than he had with the previous House Republican leadership.

Some of the Republican lawmakers who favored a “get-tough” policy rather than immigration reform were defeated in the November 2006 elections, but comprehensive immigration reform still will require bipartisan compromise, particularly on the issues of a guest-worker program and a route to a legal immigration status for unauthorized immigrants.

Senator Patrick Leahy takes over as chair of the Judiciary Committee, while Senator Edward Kennedy, a strong supporter of immigration reform, heads the immigration subcommittee. In the House, John Conyers chairs the Judiciary Committee, while the chair of the immigration subcommittee has not yet been named.

But even though the Democrats won a majority in both houses of Congress in November 2006, their majority is razor-thin in the Senate (51-49). Moreover, any legislation requires Bush's approval unless both houses of Congress can override his veto by a two-thirds majority, a virtual impossibility on this issue.

Bush long has promoted his strategy to enhance U.S. homeland security through comprehensive immigration reform, but Republican opposition frustrated efforts to address any but the border-security aspects of the issue during the 109th Congress. In signing the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the president characterized the bill’s authorization of the construction of hundreds of miles of additional fencing along the U.S. southern border and other security measures designed to stop illegal migration as “an important step” toward immigration reform. (See transcript.)

Bush called for a temporary worker plan but opposed amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States. “There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic pass to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation,” he said.

Additional information from Hanson's appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, including a video file, a Powerpoint presentation and a research paper (PDF, 71 pages), is available at the AEI Web site.

A fact sheet on the Secure Fence Act of 2006 is available at the White House Web site.

A fact sheet on U.S. immigration policy is available on the State Department Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Immigration Reform.