Winning the Next Immigration Battle

Amnesty, Patrols, and the Future of U.S. Borders

U.S. President Barack Obama has made reform of the nation's immigration laws his top priority this year. But to succeed, he will need to overcome the old adage "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it did not work out quite as promised. Indeed, rarely has a piece of congressional legislation failed as spectacularly as did the 1986 bill. It was intended to hold back a growing tide of illegal immigration into the United States but did nothing of the sort. The population of illegal immigrants in the United States, which was somewhat over three million at the time the bill was enacted, surged to an estimated 12 million by 2008. Today, there are about 11 million in the United States without authorization. The epic failure of the 1980s sowed mistrust between Congress and successive presidents, and persuaded many lawmakers that immigration reform does not deserve a second chance. As Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chairs the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, put it in early February, after listing the unmet promises of the 1986 bill: "Why should we believe you now?"

The success or failure of immigration reform legislation this year will turn largely on how that question is answered. In the Senate, the so-called Gang of Eight -- which includes Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); John McCain (R-Ariz.); Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and five others -- has outlined principles for an immigration overhaul. Obama has done the same, and a small group of House Democrats and Republicans is drafting its own proposal. And there is bipartisan enthusiasm for updating legal immigration laws to encourage scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other highly educated immigrants to settle in the United States and boost a weak economy. Meanwhile, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce are trying to compromise over a new temporary worker program for less-skilled immigrants that would help farmers and seasonal employers such as hotels and restaurants, while encouraging immigrants to come legally. But none of these efforts will likely fly unless advocates can convince skeptical House Republicans that immigration reform in 2013 will not be like immigration reform in 1986.

THE MORE THINGS STAY THE SAME

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis