Immigration and Emigration
Select a foreign-born group to see how they settled across the United States.
There has been no significant movement toward federal immigration reform since a bipartisan effort died in 2007, blocked by conservative opposition. But it has been the subject of a fever of legislation at the state level, and President Obama suggested in May 2011 that he was prepared to make it an issue in the coming presidential campaign.
To the dismay of its Hispanic supporters, the Obama administration did not make a push for comprehensive legislation during its first two years and instead focused on a stepped-up campaign of deportation, with nearly 400,000 immigrants removed a year in 2009 and in 2010.
In a speech on May 10, Mr. Obama stood near the border with Mexico and declared it more secure than ever, trying to build pressure on Republicans to take on a comprehensive immigration overhaul — and eagerly working to show vital Hispanic voters that he is not the one standing in the way.
But his boasts of strengthening border security wins him no credit among Republicans and only alienates many Latino voters so long as he cannot deliver on his campaign promise to them – a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million of immigrants already here illegally.
The Obama administration approach has met resistance even among its usual allies. Democratic Governors from states with large immigrant populations have decided not to participate in a fingerprint-sharing program that is central to the administration’senforcement strategy. Massachusetts was the third state to pull out of the program, called Secure Communities, after Illinois and New York.
From the time of the nation's founding, immigration has been crucial to the United States' growth and a periodic source of conflict. In recent decades, the country has experienced another great wave of immigration, the largest since the 1920s. However, for the first time,
illegal immigrants outnumbered legal ones. The number of illegal immigrants peaked at an estimated 11.9 million in 2008. About 11.2 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in 2010, a number essentially unchanged from the previous year, a 2011 study showed.
Republicans and Democrats have agreed for years on the need for sweeping changes in the federal immigration laws. President George W. Bush for three years pushed for a bipartisan bill before giving up in 2007 after an outcry from voters opposed to any path to legal status for illegal aliens. For the next three years the issue had in effect been dormant, as both parties were wary of the divisive passions it can arouse.
Immigration Under Bush
In January 2004, President Bush called for an overhaul of the immigration laws, proposing the broadest changes since legislation in 1986 that gave amnesty to more than three million illegal immigrants. Mr. Bush asked Congress to create a guest worker program that would "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." Immigrants would be authorized as guest workers for three years, then required to return home. The plan offered illegal immigrants in this country the possibility of becoming legal by registering as temporary workers. After opening the debate, Mr. Bush did not press the issue during his re-election campaign that year.
By 2005, frustration was growing over illegal immigration, particularly among voters in states like Arizona and Georgia that had seen a surge in newcomers. In December 2005, the House passed a bill, championed by conservative Republicans, which focused on law enforcement and border security, making it a federal felony to live illegally in the United States and mandating hundreds of miles of fence along the Mexican border. Church groups and organizations representing immigrants and Hispanics protested the measure and organized large demonstrations through the spring of 2006.
In May 2006, the Senate easily passed legislation - crafted primarily by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and by Senator McCain -- that offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and created a guest worker program. But the differences with the House bill proved too great to bridge, and the legislation died. By October of that year Congress, reflecting the changing mood in the country, passed a bill ordering the construction by the end of 2008 of about 700 miles of border fences.
President Bush seized the initiative again in early 2007, convening negotiations among a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, this time including Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, instead of Senator McCain. They wrote an ambitious bill, which was referred to as comprehensive reform, that proposed to open a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants after fees and other penalties, to create a guest worker program and also to re-orient the immigration system to put more emphasis on importing workers and less on family reunification.
That measure encountered intense opposition from well-organized voters who decried it as amnesty for immigrant lawbreakers. It died in June 2007 when it failed to attract enough votes to reach the Senate floor.
In the absence of federal legislation, state legislatures stepped in, adopting 206 laws related to immigration in 2008. The majority of new laws were designed to curb illegal immigration, by restricting access of illegal immigrants to driver's licenses and public benefits, and by cracking down on human smuggling. However, some states sought to aid immigrants with programs to help them learn English and to speed their assimilation in other ways.
On a federal level, officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, stepped up raids at factories and in communities, in a campaign that had started in 2006. The federal agency deported nearly 350,000 immigrants in fiscal 2008. Expanded federal prosecutions of illegal border crossers sharply reduced unauthorized entries in some southwestern border sectors, but also brought a flood of immigration cases in federal courts.
Immigration Under Obama
Hispanic voters, including many newly naturalized immigrants, helped win several swing states for Barack Obama in 2008. Hispanic groups pressed President Obama to halt workplace raids and to move forward with legislation opening legal pathways for illegal immigrants. But despite early pledges that it would moderate the Bush administration's tough policies, the Obama administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy for an illegal-immigration crackdown that relies significantly on programs started by his predecessor.
The Obama administration in August 2009 announced an ambitious plan to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a "truly civil detention system." The plan aimed to establish more centralized authority over the system, which holds about 400,000 immigration detainees over the course of a year, and more direct oversight of detention centers that have come under fire for mistreatment of detainees and substandard -- sometimes fatal -- medical care.
One move started immediately: the government stopped sending families to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison near Austin, Tex., that drew an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and scathing news coverage for putting young children behind razor wire.
The decision to stop sending families to Hutto, and to set aside plans for three new family detention centers, was the Obama administration's clearest departure from its predecessor's polices. Even so, the Obama administration has embraced many Bush administration policies, including expanding a program to verify worker immigration status that has been widely criticized, bolstering partnerships between federal immigration agents and local police departments, and rejecting a petition for legally binding rules on conditions in immigration detention.
In another enforcement change,the administration replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies' records for illegal immigrant workers.
While the sweeps of the past commonly led to the deportation of such workers, the "silent raids," as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.
Starting in 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted audits of employee files at more than 2,900 companies. The agency levied a record $3 million in civil fines in the first half of 2010 on businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants. Thousands of those workers have been fired, immigrant groups estimate.
Employers say the audits reach more companies than the work-site roundups of the administration of President George W. Bush. The audits force businesses to fire every suspected illegal immigrant on the payroll- not just those who happened to be on duty at the time of a raid - and make it much harder to hire other unauthorized workers as replacements.
After taking office, Mr. Obama had repeated a campaign pledge to offer a comprehensive bill before the end of 2009, and he chose proponents of that approach for senior positions in the administration, notably Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. But the deep recession, with millions of Americans losing jobs, dimmed the political prospects for efforts to increase immigration, and groups opposing legalization remained confident they could block any such proposal.
In broad outlines, officials said, the Obama administration favored legislation that would bring illegal immigrants into the legal system by recognizing that they violated the law, and imposing fines and other penalties to fit the offense. The legislation would seek to prevent future illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, while creating a national system for verifying the legal immigration status of new workers.
Resurgence as a Political Issue
Immigration came back to life as a political issue in 2010 after the passage of a new Arizona statute that was the nation's toughest on illegal aliens.
On July 28, 2010, one day before the law was to take effect, a federal judge blocked Arizona from enforcing the statute's most controversial provisions, including sections that called for officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times.
While Arizona's law was blocked, the center of activity on immigration began to swing toward the states. In the lame-duck session of Congress in late 2010, Democrats put forward legislation that would would allow illegal immigrant students to earn legal status through education or military service. The measure was meant to bolster support among Hispanics, an increasingly important voter group, and in fact, Hispanic support proved crucial in saving some Democrat seats in the midst of a Republican sweep.
It passed the House but was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. And the Republicans given control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections do not support an overhaul of immigration laws that President Obama has promised to continue to push.
Legislative leaders in at least half a dozen states have said they will propose bills similar to Arizona's law, and have announced measures to limit access to public colleges and other benefits for illegal immigrants and to punish employers who hire them. And at least five states have agreed on an unusual coordinated effort to cancel automatic United States citizenship for children born in this country to illegal immigrant parents.
Opponents say that effort would be unconstitutional, arguing that the power to grant citizenship resides with the federal government, not with the states. Still, the chances of passing many of these measures appear better than at any time since 2006, when many states, frustrated with inaction in Washington, began proposing initiatives to curb illegal immigration. Alabama, for instance, has passed a sweeping bill to crack down on illegal immigrants that both supporters and opponents call the toughest of its kind in the country.