Immigration Reform on the Back Burner: How Does this Bode for U.S.-Mexico Relations?
By Carl MeachamSep 24, 2013
After a summer of developments in the immigration reform process, Congress was expected to pick up the issue when it returned from its August recess. That expectation was swiftly derailed, as recent weeks have seen the U.S. legislature entirely (and understandably) absorbed by the ongoing crisis in Syria and by a possible federal government shutdown because Republicans and the Obama administration fail to agree on a budget.
This is not the first time immigration reform has been pushed from the policy agenda by more pressing, time-sensitive issues—far from it. Every time immigration has surfaced as a major policy priority, a seemingly more urgent issue has taken the spotlight.
In 2001, President George W. Bush—and a bipartisan group of supporters—appeared ready to partner with President Vicente Fox of Mexico to change the laws governing immigration between the United States and its Latin American neighbors. Right after President Fox’s visit, however, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 quickly changed the trajectory of Bush’s policy agenda, leaving little time or attention for immigration reform.
Seven years later, Bush’s effort to advance bipartisan reform of the system was pushed off course once again, as the rise of the Tea Party and its platform divided the Republican Party on the issue. Without support on both sides of the aisle, reform was, once again, destined to fail.
President Barack Obama picked up the torch, planning to overhaul the current immigration legislation during his time in office. But this summer’s momentum for reform seems to have been lost—and the plan may be pushed from Congress’s 2013 calendar altogether.
So where does the reform process stand now, and how does it bode for our relationship with Mexico?
Q1: What could immigration reform entail?
A1: Generally, there are four key components of comprehensive immigration reform—each with its own debate and partisan divide: border security; a path to citizenship; work programs; and amnesty for undocumented immigrants currently living within U.S. borders. It is this last aspect that has proven the largest point of disagreement among lawmakers.
Because of their different partisan makeup and ensuing priorities, the House of Representatives and the Senate have each taken a different approach to immigration reform legislation.
In June, the Senate advanced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act with broad, bipartisan support. This comprehensive bill, while not perfect, seeks to tackle the entire reform process at once, would strengthen border security, ease the process of acquiring work visas across skill levels, and provide amnesty to and create a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States.
Though currently preoccupied with the implications of the crisis in Syria and the budget, the House has its own proposed course of action on immigration reform: individual pieces of legislation to address each problem facing the current system, rather than a comprehensive approach.
Q2: Where is immigration reform likely to go moving forward?
A2: Immigration reform supporters campaigned tirelessly throughout the summer for policymakers’ attention. Though the Senate made early progress through its comprehensive approach, the bill is now stuck in the House Judiciary Committee.
Even if the House does take up the issue, its piecemeal approach is unlikely to result in reform that is truly comprehensive in the aggregate. The Republican-dominated body has little incentive to compromise on amnesty and a path to citizenship (largely Democrat-championed issues) when it can push legislation on border security and more stringent visa requirements without bipartisan support.
Still, the likelihood of even partial reform this year seems to be lower every day.
Only a month ago, it appeared that Congress would focus primarily on fiscal and immigration issues on its return from the August recess. With the threat of government shutdown fast approaching and the still-tenuous situation in Syria, Congress may not have room on its agenda for immigration reform in 2013.
That said, hope for timely reform is not lost. Those pushing for comprehensive reform of the system continue to push for House action before the end of 2013—and for good reason. Should votes on the issue be pushed back to 2014, Congress would face the issue during an election year, likely spurring further delays as lawmakers up for reelection avoid action on so contentious an issue.
Conclusion: Perhaps it should not be too surprising that immigration reform—at least in comprehensive form—seems to be moving steadily toward the back burner. In the GOP-dominated House, any discussion of the issue will likely focus primarily, or even only, on border security.
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico, which is both the country most intimately involved in immigration to the United States and among the fastest-growing, most promising economies in the hemisphere. While there, Biden called once again for real change to U.S. immigration legislation—a call that, given that legislation’s importance to our southern neighbor, certainly did not fall on deaf ears. To be sure, the positive impact of meaningful, proactive immigration reform on our relations with Mexico is immeasurable. But the rhetoric can only bode well if it’s followed by action. And, unfortunately Mexicans feel that they have been left at the altar too many times on this issue.
Even at home, though, the general consensus remains that our country’s immigration laws must be adjusted at some point. But for now, the 11 million plus people living in the United States without documentation and the countless others hopeful of work or citizenship in this country fundamentally made up of immigrants may yet again be left off of the legislative agenda. So, when will there be a good time to deal with the broken immigration system?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catherine Krege, intern scholar with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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