Immigration Reform in the Early U.S

In 1882—106 years after the United States declared independence—the United States placed its first major restrictions on immigration to the new country. Chinese workers had flocked to the U.S. during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), and as the gold decreased, animosity toward immigrants—especially the Chinese—increased. President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prohibit all Chinese laborers from entering the country, and by 1917, the ban had expanded to include nearly all Asians. Also barred were illiterate and impoverished people, some radicals, and people with certain disabilities and diseases. Despite the ban, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1920 in what historians call the “Great Wave.”

American fears about the Bolshevik Revolution fueled immigration concerns on the home front; many expected a flood of European immigration. Of particular concern were the numbers of Catholics and Jews entering the country. In response to these fears, the House of Representatives passed a 14-month suspension of immigration in 1920, a bill that was ultimately replaced by immigration quotas. Three groups were exempt from the quotas: children of U.S. citizens, wives of U.S. citizens, and immigrants from nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Revisions to the 1920 bill were made in 1924, functionally barring Japanese immigrants (who had not previously been highlighted as being ineligible for citizenship) from legal immigration. Immigrants from other Asian countries—Asia being defined by longitudinal coordinates that excluded Japan—had been banned from citizenship since 1870, when Congress passed a law allowing only “white persons” and people “of African descent” to become citizens.

In 1943, in recognition of China’s WWII ally status, Congress struck down the laws barring Chinese immigration and afforded Chinese immigrants the potential right to citizenship. Three years later, a similar act granted citizenship rights to Filipinos and Indians, and in 1952, all references to race or ethnicity were stricken from immigration laws in the United States, and the country began focusing more on welcoming refugees after 1952, but race nevertheless remained a factor in immigration decisions. The country’s track record on the issue took a serious blow in the years immediately prior to WWII when the United States Congress refused to pass a bill admitting 20,000 German children to the U.S.; nearly all of the children would have been Jewish. Furthermore, after the war ended, Congress passed a bill admitting some of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been displaced by the war—but only after two years, and with restrictions that made it difficult for Catholics and Jews to enter the country.

In the months leading up to the largest immigration reform bill in the modern era—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—neither President Truman nor members of Congress foresaw that the bill would much alter immigration in practice. Following his advisors’ lead, Truman remarked that the Act “would continue, practically without change, the national origins quota system.” The bill, however, would change the face of American immigration for decades to come.

Source: IIP Digital, “Intended and unintended consequences of the 20th Century,

Source: Center for Immigration Studies, “Historical Overview of Immigration Policy,

President Obama and Immigration

Congress historically recesses for the month of August, and 2013 will be no exception. For immigration reform, that means that if a bill passes at all, it will not be before the fall. President Obama had previously stated that his goal was for Congress to pass a bill before the August recess, but Speaker of the House John Boehner is not inclined to bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote, and drafting a different version of the bill—or breaking immigration reform into several bills—will take time. Regarding his August goal, President Obama told Telemundo, “That was originally my hope and my goal. But the House Republicans, I think, still have to process this issue and discuss it further, and hopefully, I think, still hear from constituents, from businesses to labor, to evangelical Christians who all are supporting immigration reform.”

Prior to commenting on the August recess, President Obama had been distancing himself from the immigration reform debate, most say because he wanted to avoid aligning himself with the issue in fear that it would cause a backlash against the bill from Republicans. Recent developments in the House—specifically, the House’s resistance to a pathway to citizenship—seem to have caused the president to change course. “It does not make sense to me, if we’re going to make this once-in-a-generation effort to finally fix the system, to leave the status of 11 million people or so unresolved, and certainly for us to have two classes of people in this country — full citizens and people who are permanently resigned to a lower status,” said the president.

The House’s piecemeal approach to immigration reform has evoked a reaction from the president as well. “There’s a tendency, I think, to put off the hard stuff until the end,” the president said. “And if you’ve eaten your dessert before you’ve eaten your meal, at least with my children, sometimes they don’t end up eating their vegetables. So we need to, I think, do this as a complete package.”

While the president considers a pathway to citizenship to be an equalizer that eliminates the “lower status” of undocumented immigrants, many members of the House refer to a potential pathway as “amnesty.” The people who would gain citizenship have broken the law, they say, and the government’s response would be not only to forgive them that, but to reward them.

Despite House Republicans’ many stated reservations, President Obama remains optimistic about the chances of a comprehensive immigration reform bill passing Congress. The August recess won’t kill the bill’s momentum, says Obama, and may even result in more Republican support. But even without the August recess, the president has expressed confidence that the Senate bill would pass the House in its current form. Stated Obama, “If in fact the House recognized the smart thing, the right thing to do, was to go ahead and send the Senate bill to the floor for a vote, I think it would pass tomorrow.”

Source: VOXXI, “Obama: Immigration reform bill unlikely to pass before August,” Griselda Nevarez,
July 17, 2013

Source: Reuters, “Obama says immigration bill unlikely to pass House before August break,” Roberta Rampton,
July 16, 2013

Source: Huffington Post, “Obama On Immigration Reform: ‘I Think It Would Pass Tomorrow’,” Elise Foley,
July 16, 2013

The Gang of Seven

There has been much speculation regarding immigration reform and the House of Representatives, specifically as it relates to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. While many House Republicans have stated their opposition to a pathway to citizenship, House Democrats have announced that they will not approve any bill that doesn’t include it.

Representative Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California, is a member of the House’s “Gang of Seven,” a bipartisan group of representatives drafting House immigration legislation. Becerra recently gave an interview in which he said, “The bipartisan group is working on approval of this measure, which will touch upon all necessary aspects to deliver a healthy, sensible and comprehensive immigration reform. I’m telling you directly, it includes a pathway to citizenship.”

The Gang of Seven used to be a second Gang of Eight. Republican Raul Labrador quit the group, citing disagreements over healthcare responsibilities of immigrants. “The framework of the bill has changed in a way that I can no longer support,” said Labrador. “Like most Americans, I believe that healthcare is first and foremost a personal responsibility.” Labrador largely supported the Senate bill, but insisted that any bill he endorsed must require all undocumented immigrants who register for a pathway to citizenship to purchase unsubsidized health insurance. Furthermore, Labrador argued that registered provisional immigrants should be eligible for deportation if they fail to pay their healthcare bills.

Other Gang of (at that time) Eight members urged Labrador to consider the median income of immigrants ($35,000), the average cost of health insurance for a family ($13,295), and the disastrous consequences of such a rule on a provisional immigrant who was diagnosed with leukemia or who was involved in a traffic collision. Deportation or death (by way of avoiding medical care for serious illnesses or injuries) would be the only options available to these immigrants, argued Labrador’s seven partners; and it would kill the bill, as the majority of immigrants would be unable to afford even the most basic of health insurance costs. Labrador would not support a bill that included taxpayer support of immigrant healthcare, and he left the group.

Supporters of immigration reform face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House—especially since Republicans have widely varying beliefs regarding immigration. While Democrats are beginning to show signs of uniformity regarding immigration reform, there is such a diversity of viewpoints within the Republican Party that uniformity—or anything close to it—seems like a pipe dream.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma congratulated the Senate’s Gang of Eight on their “decent legislation,” but said that it would never reach the House floor. However, a comprehensive immigration reform bill is not necessarily out of reach. Said Cole, “Now on our side, we have opted for the individual approach, but there’s also negotiations going on between our own individual Gang of Seven for a larger, more comprehensive bill. We’ll see that at some point.”

Source: ABC News, “Becerra: House Immigration Reform Bill “Includes a Pathway to Citizenship”,” Jordan Fabian,
July 12, 2013

Source: New Republic, “The Unmagnificent Seven Raúl Labrador has quit the House Gang of Eight. That doesn’t bode well for immigration reform,” John B. Judis,
June 6, 2013

Source: NY Times, “The House’s Immigration Dilemma,” Ross Douthat,
July 13, 2013

Source: IB Times, “Immigration Reform 2013: House Comprehensive Bill To Come ‘At Some Point’,” Laura Matthews,
July 14, 2013

House Democrats

House Democrats won 1.4 million more votes in the 2012 election than did their Republican counterparts, but due to redistricting, they ended up with 17 fewer seats in the 435-member House. As House Republicans reaffirm their commitment to avoid drafting or adopting a comprehensive immigration reform bill, House Democrats vow not to support any immigration legislation that does not include a pathway to citizenship. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, has said that he and other House Democrats are unwilling to support the Republicans’ piecemeal approach to immigration reform. “I don’t know that the Republican leadership has a strategy that is workable,” he said.

House Democrats are expressing that a path to citizenship is a nonnegotiable for them when it comes to any immigration reform package. Representative Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California, told reporters after a House Democrats/Gang of Eight Democrats meeting, “You must include a pathway to citizenship. Democrats will make that very clear to Republicans.” With regard to the Senate’s overwhelming support of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, Becerra added, “They made the point emphatically [that] we cannot become a country that would [create] second class Americans.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democratic member of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, agrees. “Without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill. There can’t be a bill.” Holding a House/Senate conference committee without a path to citizenship, according to Schumer, would be “a path to a cul-de-sac, to no immigration bill.”

Though they are outnumbered, House Democrats are optimistic that they possess enough power to include a path to citizenship in the House’s immigration reform bill(s). Becerra says, “I don’t see how Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans pass real immigration reform that fixes the problem without Democratic votes. They’re going to have to reach across the aisle.” He continued, “We hope our Republican colleagues in the House will be ready to reach across the aisle to work with us, because I don’t believe that the House of Representatives can pass any major immigration reform without Democratic support. I don’t see how Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans can pass real immigration reform that fixes the broken immigration system without Democratic votes.”

House Democrats are hoping that House Republicans will realize that a bill without a path to citizenship will not pass the House—but to some House Republicans, that may be just fine. Some prominent Republicans are encouraging members of the House to drop the bill altogether, saying there is no hurry to pass immigration reform.

Not every aspect of the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill appeals to House Democrats. Specifically, the nearly-militarized border that would double the size of the United States Border Control—and the corresponding 700 miles of fencing—are parts of the bill House Democrats would like to see fall by the wayside. “I don’t think you need to militarize the border in order to secure it,” said Becerra. “The biggest failure would be to do nothing … If we don’t like what the Senate did, let’s prove we can do it better.”

Source: USA Today, “No easy road ahead on immigration in GOP House,” Susan Davis and Alan Gomez,
July 10, 2013

Source: USA Today, “After Recess, House Democrats Seek Path Forward on Immigration,” Ashley Parker,
July 9, 2013

The Senate Passes Immigration Reform

On Thursday, the Senate passed the immigration reform bill about which they had been deliberating for several months. The vote was 68-32, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans in support. The bill’s supporters had hoped for 70 votes, thinking that such a strong majority would put significant pressure on the House to pass the bill as well. Republican member of the Gang of Eight Lindsey Graham was not disappointed, however. “This is overwhelming support for the bill,” he remarked after the vote. “Why did I want 70? I’m just greedy. … This is incredibly pleasing.”

Members of the House expressed reluctance regarding the Senate bill. Speaker of the House John Boehner commented, “The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We’re going to do our own bill through regular order, and it’ll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people. And for any legislation, including a [final bill], to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members.”

While the Senate bill proposes large-scale changes, the House has consistently shown reservations about a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. USA Today reports that “80% of House Republicans represent districts so conservative that they are unlikely to ever face a general election threat.” What this means for House Republicans is that their focus will nearly always be on primary elections, where they must fight to show their conservatism—and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is not high on the typical conservative’s hierarchy of values.

“The House has no capacity to move that (Senate) bill in its entirety. It just won’t happen. It is a pipedream to think that that bill is going to go to the floor and be voted on,” said Peter Roskam, a House Republican from Illinois. “My view is: Break this down. Break it down into smaller components. Clearly where our conference is, is all about trying to deal with a secure border. Once there is a level of confidence on a secure border, then you can begin to move forward on these other elements.”

Florida governor and possible presidential hopeful Jeb Bush is encouraging Republicans to “cease being the obstacle to immigration reform and instead point the way toward the solution.” Arguing that immigration reform would be the deciding issue for many Asian and Hispanic voters, Bush hopes to exert pressure on House Republicans to drop their piecemeal approach to reform and adopt the Senate’s 1,000+ page bill. Lindsey Graham agrees. Said Graham, “We’ve hit a demographic wall. If we can’t grow our numbers among particularly Hispanics, it’s pretty hard to win the White House in 2016. It’s hard to sell your economic agenda if they think they’re going to deport your grandmother.” Many pundits speculate that the way Senators and House Representatives will be significant factors in the 2016 Republican primaries—whether or not the bill passes Congress.

Source: Huffington Post, “Senate Immigration Reform Bill Passes With Strong Majority,” Elise Foley,
June 27, 2013

Source: USA Today, “House GOP opposes Senate-passed immigration bill,” Susan Davis and Alan Gomez,
June 27, 2013

Source:, “Jeb Bush to Republicans: Stop Being ‘Obstacle’ to Immigration Reform,” Tony Lee,
July 2, 2013