Immigration reform: More than a decade of failure from Bush to Obama and now Trump

Key Points
  • A Republican immigration reform bill was overwhelmingly rejected in the House this week, marking only the latest setback on immigration in Congress in recent years. 
  • Amid party divisions and unpredictability from President Donald Trump, lawmakers appear no closer to passing comprehensive immigration reform than they were during the Bush and Obama administrations. 
  • The issue has taken on more urgency this summer amid public uproar over the Trump administration's separation of migrant children from parents. 
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at Scheels Arena on June 27, 2018 in Fargo, North Dakota. President Trump held a campaign style 'Make America Great Again' rally in Fargo, North Dakota with thousands in attendance. 
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The latest in a yearslong series of immigration reform efforts crashed in Congress this week, leaving bleak prospects for passing legislation in the months before November's midterm elections.

Lawmakers for more than a decade have struggled to resolve the thorniest policy issue in Washington. The stakes when House Republican legislation failed spectacularly Wednesday appeared particularly high: The Trump administration faces nationwide backlash over the crisis created by its policy of separating migrant children from parents at U.S. borders.

For years, Congress has pushed for some form of immigration reform. The proposals have varied, and come under both Republican and Democratic control of Capitol Hill and the White House. Many bills in recent years have aimed to tighten border security measures while providing a path to legal status or citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants.

Though Congress has come close to passing some type of immigration reform, it has repeatedly failed to resolve one of the country's most intractable debates. Now, with a combative Congress and an unpredictable president who has used hard-line immigration goals as a negotiating tactic, lawmakers appear as far as ever from passing immigration reform.

Immigration debate intensifies as White House unveils new plan
Immigration debate intensifies as White House unveils new plan

Congress could consider delaying on acting now in hopes of passing "a more comprehensive immigration reform scheme in some imagined future," said Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Center's Immigration Clinic. But he said, "The argument against the danger of piecemeal reform should not overshadow the necessity of resolving these issues."

"A legislative fix could protect people with DACA, asylum seekers and others such as those separated from their family members now," Hoffman added.

Efforts to pass immigration legislation have crumbled several times already this year. The setbacks extend a long string of failures to approve immigration reform that lawmakers will have a difficult time ending.

Congress has tried to codify protections for up to 1.2 million young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children and aimed to pass increased funding for border security. Every attempt during the Trump administration — which came after the president tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy , or DACA, shielding the immigrants known as "Dreamers" — has fallen short.

This week, the Republican bill crashed when GOP members in part could not agree on whether they wanted to offer a path to citizenship for those young immigrants. The bill came about after House Republicans negotiated to divert an effort from some members to vote on a wider range of measures. All Democrats opposed the legislation that failed Wednesday, as it met President Donald Trump's demands for funding his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and limiting legal immigration.

The House overwhelmingly rejected the GOP’s compromise immigration bill
The House overwhelmingly rejected the GOP’s compromise immigration bill

Meanwhile, multiple proposals failed in the Senate earlier this year. The vast majority of Democrats and some Republicans rejected a plan that would have codified Trump's goals. A more moderate compromise between both major parties also failed to pass the chamber.

Lawmakers have not been able to reach any consensus this year, and they may not anytime soon. But the gridlock started long before the Trump administration.

"There’s been a failure in terms of the Democrats when they had control, and a failure on the part of the Republicans, as well. Both parties should share the blame on that," Hoffman said.

Reform has confounded lawmakers for years

The concept of comprehensive immigration reform gained traction during the George W. Bush administration. Reform legislation picked up steam but never made it through two chambers of Congress during Bush's time in office.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 would have boosted border security with fencing, surveillance technology and other methods. It would have created a guest worker program and the potential for some undocumented immigrants in the country to obtain legal status.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate in May 2006. Bush backed the effort, saying at the time that he looked forward to "working together with both the House of Representatives and the Senate to produce a bill for me to sign into law," according to CNN.

The GOP-held House never took up the legislation. Failures in subsequent years would echo the 2006 episode.

A similar bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill fizzled out in the Senate in 2007. At the time, Democrats and independents who caucus with them had 51 seats, versus 49 for the GOP. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has overseen the Trump administration's immigration policy, helped to lead conservative resistance to the bill as a Republican senator from Alabama.

Bush called the result "a disappointment," according to The New York Times. He added: "A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground. It didn't work."

United States Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)
Michael Brochstein | LightRocket | Getty Images

After that bill's failure in 2007, the DREAM Act — which would have given legal status to and opened a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — was introduced in the Senate as stand-alone legislation. The measure championed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also fell short.

Efforts to pass immigration reform or protect young undocumented immigrants fared no better during the Obama administration.

In 2010, a House overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats passed the DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The bill failed to overcome a filibuster in the Democratic-controlled Senate that December.

After years of gridlock, then-President Barack Obama took matters into his own hands in June 2012. Under an executive action, his administration allowed the young immigrants to stay in the country and temporarily go to school or work while protected from deportation. He described it as a "stopgap" until Congress could pass legislation.

"Now, let’s be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix," Obama said at the time. "This is a temporary, stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. ... It is the right thing to do."

President Trump to CNBC: We're going to solve the DACA problem
President Trump to CNBC: We're going to solve the DACA problem

The Trump administration tried to end the DACA policy last year, arguing it was illegal and calling on Congress to pass legislation codifying it. Lawmakers have since failed to do so. Trump's move to end DACA has been held up by court decisions.

Congress revisited bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. The effort also crumbled. At the time, Republicans controlled the House while Democrats held the Senate.

A bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight" introduced a reform package. The bill would have offered a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, authorized new border security funding, made the E-Verify employment verification system mandatory and attempted to make the legal immigration system more efficient.

The Senate passed the legislation in June 2013. The House never voted on it.

Since Trump took office, immigration reform has proven just as difficult as it was in the two preceding administrations. Various setbacks in bipartisan talks this year, partly driven by Trump's shifting demands, led to the failure this week of the House bill crafted only by Republicans.

Where does immigration reform go from here?

The latest setback in the Republican-controlled Congress left an unclear path forward for immigration reform. The prospects of lawmakers passing a broad immigration package look dim.

Trump administration defends zero-tolerance immigration policy
Trump administration defends zero-tolerance immigration policy

However, the prospect of lawmakers approving a bill related to only family separations appears more likely amid ongoing public uproar. Both the House and Senate are set to consider bills this summer on the issue, but it is unclear if the major parties can reach a compromise.

"I don't think [Trump is] going to be allowed to turn away from the issue. It's going to continue in the courts, legislation and the public consciousness," Hoffman said.

The divisions within parties and chambers that haunted previous immigration reform efforts still exist. First, getting an immigration bill through the GOP-controlled House is a political labyrinth.

Any immigration measure considered too harsh or conservative will immediately alienate most or all of the House Democratic caucus. Republicans can pass a bill by themselves in the House. But, as seen this week, divisions between conservative and more moderate GOP members makes consensus within the party difficult.

If a Republican-crafted bill emerges from the House, it faces a daunting path to passage in the Senate. Any legislation that passes the more conservative House could have trouble garnering the 60 votes needed in the other chamber.

Trump acknowledged as much in a tweet earlier this month. He questioned "the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate."

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he leaves Speaker Ryan's office on Thursday, June 21, 2018, as House GOP leadership tries to find a path to pass immigration legislation. 
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Still, it will not stop some Republicans from continuing to seek a broader immigration reform package. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican and one of the leading voices behind the effort to force votes in the House, said he would keep trying to pass legislation.

Curbelo is among a handful of GOP lawmakers facing a challenge in a swing district this year in which immigration is a key issue.

"Now, despite this setback we will continue working with Republicans, with Democrats, with anyone who is sincerely interested in solving this problem, and this is not only an immigration problem," he said after the bill failed this week. "If our country's politics are going to start healing, we need to solve the immigration issue, because it is an issue that is tearing this country apart every day."