Why Is Immigration Reform Stalled? Look Back In Time

Past provides lessons on difficulty of passing reform

ByABC News
July 16, 2013, 12:39 PM

July 16, 2013— -- Last month, the Senate's passage of its landmark immigration reform bill seemed like major progress after years of gridlock stymied the issue.

But now that the House has taken up immigration reform, the road ahead seems as treacherous as ever. Longtime observers of the debate could tell you they have seen this happen before.

Here's a brief history of past immigration reform efforts in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the lessons that we learned from them.


The circumstances of immigration reform's failure in 2006 are eerily similar to today's effort.

In May, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 62-36 to pass a bill that would have offered a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But the vote failed to sway conservatives in the House.

The Senate bill eventually died, since it could not be reconciled with a previously-passed House bill that took an enforcement-only approach to immigration. That provision had triggered mass protests from immigrant-rights groups.


A big reason why the House went ahead with an enforcement-only approach is because a comprehensive bill could not find enough support.

Earlier in 2005, Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) introduced a bipartisan bill that would have granted a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while beefing up border security.

An identical bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) But that type of comprehensive proposal never gained traction in the GOP-controlled House, which was under heavy pressure from conservative talk radio and anti-illegal immigration groups like the Minuteman Project.


If you want to understand why the Republican Party has been fixated on border security and enforcement, the year 1996 provides your best clue.

It was 10 years after the 1986 immigration overhaul, which legalized nearly three million undocumented immigrants in exchange for penalizing employers that knowingly hired those without a legal work permit. The problem was that law didn't stop the flow of unauthorized immigration to the U.S.

So, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and other lawmakers authored a bill that made it easier to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, imposed three- and ten-year re-entry bars for immigrants found to be unlawfully present in the U.S., and made it more difficult to seek asylum. The proposal passed the GOP-controlled Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton.

The 1996 bill helped trigger a trend of increased immigration enforcement that we see to this day. And attempts at legalization on the scale of 1986 have not succeeded since.

So yes, Congress succeeded in passing a bill into law in 1996. But that came at the detriment of future immigration reform efforts.