A United States Border Patrol agent keeps watch. (Eric Thayer / Courtesy Reuters)
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