Can Immigration Reform Happen? A Look Back

Will the Congress manage to come up with an immigration deal that President Trump will sign? That is the question on everyone’s minds as negotiators in Congress work towards a deal that could avert a second government shutdown and/or result in an unprecedented presidential declaration of national emergency.

Bipartisan deals on immigration have eluded lawmakers and presidents for three decades. The last big immigration bill was passed in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was president and both houses of Congress were held by Democrats. A smaller bill was passed in 1990 when George H.W. Bush was president and both houses of Congress were still controlled by Democrats.

During George W. Bush’s presidency the push for bipartisan immigration reform was defeated by a conservative revolt against amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. In 2013 another bipartisan effort failed, with the bill passing the Senate but never coming up for a vote in the House. Since then polarization around the issue has only increased—a phenomenon not limited to the United States but also echoed in developed countries around the world. Last year’s immigration agenda in Congress illustrates the difficulty. Three immigration bills went to the House floor following a discharge petition threat by moderate Republicans advocating to resolve the status of DACA recipients. Two were straightforward fixes for DACA (one from each party). The third was a sweeping, hard-line overhaul of the immigration system sponsored by Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that lacked anything to entice Democrats. None of these three bills passed the House.

So what happened between 1986 and now?

The simple explanation is to chalk it all up to Donald Trump’s xenophobia. But while Trump stoked these tendencies, they are not new to America—they have increasingly influenced immigration policy, but they are not reflective of the public’s attitudes. If anything, the country has grown more, not less, tolerant of immigrants over time. When Gallup asked Americans in 1986 if “immigration should be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?” 49 percent of Americans said it should be decreased. When the same question was asked in June 2018 only 29 percent said it should be decreased.

By Elaine Kamarck and Christine Stenglein for BROOKINGS

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