Is Bush’s Plan for Comprehensive Immigration Reform possible with the New Congress?

Neil Ruiz
Neil Ruiz Senior Policy Analyst and Associate Fellow - The Brookings Institution

January 24, 2007

In President Bush’s State of the Union, he asked Congress to have “a serious, civil, and conclusive debate – so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.” Will President Bush be able to achieve this goal under the leadership of the new Congress? A brief review of recent history and the likely challenges ahead show it will be a tough fight.

Recent History

The last comprehensive legislation on immigration, IRCA 1986, became law under a divided government (Democratic House and Republican Senate) and was signed by President Ronald Reagan. In recent years, despite interest in the issue and applause at the State of the Union for the President’s prioritization of immigration reform, legislators have struggled with individual components of a comprehensive reform package and have not been able to move from rhetoric to action. For example, in the 109th Congress, policymakers were clearly divided over which measures to include in the bill. The Senate passed S. 2611, an all-inclusive immigration bill that contained provisions covering all elements of Bush’s proposed plan, including a temporary worker program, while the House passed H.R. 4437, a more restrictive immigration bill that focused solely on the border, and excluded provisions on a temporary worker program and the legalization of undocumented workers.

This divide between both chambers of Congress made it possible for President Bush to focus solely on securing the border, one of the most contentious issues in immigration reform and one of the least visionary in terms of real reform. Last October, Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act that doubled the amount of money to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border from $4.6 billion in 2001 to $10.4 billion and increased the number of border patrol agents from 9,000 to more than 12,000 by the end of 2008. The more hotly contested issues surrounding immigration reform, such as the creation of a temporary worker program and the status of the estimated 11-12 million people living illegally in the United States, were pushed aside while the border wall went up and Congress considered on other issues. Now, Congress must address the whole range of these immigration challenges if it is to make a “comprehensive” plan a reality.


Will Speaker Pelosi’s House have a more inclusive position on immigration policy than in the last Congress? If the voting record of Democrats in the last session serves as any indication of how the new House will behave, a more inclusive House bill may be on its way given that 82 percent of Democrats opposed the restrictive H.R. 4437. On the Senate side, prospects are also strong that an inclusive immigration bill similar to S.2611 might pass as approximately 90 percent of Democrats in the last session supported it. However, for Bush’s plan to succeed, both chambers of Congress must send the President an immigration reform bill that:

  1. Builds a system for verifying documents and work eligibility so that law enforcers can ensure that employers are not hiring illegal workers;
  2. Develops a temporary worker program that would be a lawful path for foreign workers to enter the country on a temporary basis, to fill jobs that Americans would not take, and to reduce pressure on the border;
  3. Creates a system for legalizing the undocumented already living in the US without having to grant them amnesty and develop a mass deportation program;
  4. Provides resources for integrating new immigrants into America by helping them learn American ideals and history, and providing programs for them to learn how to speak and write in the English language.

Given these four major areas that Congress must tackle and agree on, immigration reform will not be an easy task. CBS News conducted a poll in early January 2007, and asked whether Americans thought immigration reform would pass now that Democrats have control of Congress. The poll showed that 42 percent surveyed believed it would, 42 percent believed it wouldn’t, and the rest were unsure. From these results, the public seems as confused as Congress on its prospects. Perhaps the right question to ask then is whether Congress will have enough time under Bush’s presidency to pass comprehensive immigration reform bills. Americans must wait and see.