For decades, American politicians had tried and failed to meaningfully address issues with the country’s immigration system as illegal immigration from the border with Mexico became a growing problem. Immigration reform laws had been passed under both Reagan and Clinton, but these efforts amounted to temporary fixes that failed to establish a comprehensive framework to address future issues. Factions in both parties took different sides in arguments between amnesty and enforcement. By the time of President George W. Bush’s second term in office, little action had been taken since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which was seen as mostly ineffective (Weiner 2013). Bush, former governor of a state which shares over 1,000 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, had long wanted to undertake comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, “[immigration reform] is one of a few issues in which [Bush] has been willing to buck key factions in his party… At one point, Bush had been hopeful that the issue would lead to a realignment of American politics, with more Hispanics joining the Republican Party” (Weisman 2007). Bush believed that he could offer a compromise that would satisfy pro-business groups and immigration advocates as well as shore up Hispanic support of the GOP.
The President had good reason, obtained both from his own experience and country-wide demographic trends, to try to appeal to Hispanic voters. Bush had become such a successful figure in Texas politics “by embracing Hispanic culture and avoiding any whiff of anti-immigrant rhetoric. …Bush won a startling 40 percent of the Hispanic votes in 2004, double the GOP total from a decade earlier” (Schaller 2007). Proving Bush’s point, other members of his party often took the opposite approach, and “after many 2006 Republican congressional candidates ran nasty, anti-immigrant ads…the GOP share of the Hispanic vote collapsed to 29 percent in the midterm cycle” (Schaller 2007). Bush believed the GOP had to stake its future on courting Hispanic voters, who were largely more receptive to the socially conservative values of the party than other minority groups. Their vote share was also increasing rapidly, and if they started to swing towards Democrats, Bush and like-minded Republicans feared the GOP would be done for, especially in border states. The President saw progress on immigration issues as the best way to court the Hispanic vote and satisfy demands from the Republican base for greater border security. However, early efforts by the Bush administration and moderate Democrats and Republicans in Congress fell short, largely stymied by conservative backlash to any proposal offering amnesty to illegal immigrants. Before progress could be made on reform, it seemed that Republicans would have to feel the pain Hispanic voters could inflict.
After the 2006 elections, prospects for reform seemed to look up as Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. President Bush, facing record-low approval ratings and lacking any significant legislative victory in his second term in office, saw a chance for triumph in his party’s defeat. He wasn’t alone, as “[a]dvocates thought that with Democrats in control of Congress, Bush would try a moderate approach again and succeed” (Weiner). With Bush’s support, Senators John McCain, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, and others created the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 in a bipartisan effort to enact broad reform. Reid would be the one to introduce Senate bill 1348 onto the floor of the Senate on May 9th, 2007. On the 21st, a cloture vote on the motion to proceed to consideration of the bill passed 69-23. In the following days it was considered by the Senate. On June 7th, it was subject to a cloture vote, which would clear the way to final passage if cloture was invoked. However, the bill failed the vote 33-63. A cloture vote was held again on amended versions of the bill twice more the same day, but the second failed 34-61 and the third failed 45-50. President Bush and the leadership of both parties still had hope an immigration reform bill could pass: Senator Kennedy reintroduced the bill as Senate bill 1639 on June 18th. On the 26th, cloture on the motion to proceed to consideration passed 64-35. Finally, on the 28th of June, the Senate failed to invoke cloture by a vote of 46-53 (congress.gov). Despite all the ingredients needed for passage seeming to be in place, the bill ultimately failed. The final vote to invoke cloture fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed, with members of both parties defecting and voting to effectively kill the bill (Higgins 2012).
Immigration reform was once again off the agenda, and to this day no broad reform of the system has taken place. With such an apparently high degree of bipartisan support, why was the bill defeated? Both parties had objectives that could have been satisfied by the bill’s passage, and both would have presumably benefitted from the appearance to the public that Congress was actually getting something important done. Despite numerous incentives favoring passage, factors present on the right and the left, both inside and outside the party structure, ultimately led to the bill’s failure. Some of these factors are due to the actual provisions present in the bill: compromises taken so far and made so numerous as for the end product to not be palatable to politicians on either side of the aisle.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (CIRA) had elements designed to appeal to both sides of the immigration debate: amnesty, stricter enforcement measures, a guest worker program, more funding for border security, etc. The central component of the act was granting “temporary legal status to virtually all illegal immigrants in the country, while allowing them to apply for residence visas and eventual citizenship” (Weisman). It would also have created a temporary guest worker program that “would allow as many as 400,000 migrants into the country each year, but they would have to leave after two years” (Weisman). It also included reforms to the visa system, which “would be augmented by a complex point system that would favor skilled, educated workers” and put less weight on maintaining familial ties (Weisman). However, these changes “would take effect only after the implementation of tough new border controls and a crackdown on the employment of undocumented workers”, including new border patrol agents, more fencing along the border, and tools to help screen out illegal immigrants in the employment process (Weisman).
In theory, there was a little something for everyone in this bill. Democrats as a whole strongly favored amnesty for illegal immigrants and this provision was key for their support. The guest worker program was put in to attract the support of business interests, who wanted access to the cheap and abundant labor Mexico and Central American countries could provide. If businesses were on board, so were most Republicans, especially moderate members of the GOP establishment. The visa system change was a bone thrown to more conservative Republicans who criticized immigration practices that led to unskilled workers entering the country to compete for American jobs. It would favor immigrants who would be less likely to compete for the jobs of working class Americans and who would be theoretically more likely to integrate and contribute to American society. This provision could also have proven popular with pro-labor Democrats and their working class constituencies, who may have felt alienated by the guest worker program. Increasing funding and resources for both security and enforcement measures would enable the legislation to be effective at reducing the need for amnesty measures in the future. These efforts were obviously largely attractive to Republicans as a whole, but also would have enabled Democrats to portray themselves as no more soft on illegal immigration than the GOP.
Of course, politics is often a zero sum game. Or more importantly, if it is not, it is viewed that way by those who participate in it and hold power in the system. Any ground given to one side is ground lost by another. In such an environment bipartisan efforts are often difficult to translate into real change. Absolute gains, such as the reformation of an immigration system badly in need fixing, are less important than relative gains, such as gaining an advantage over the other party or interest group. These principles point to one of the main reasons CIRA failed: key interest groups withdrew or withheld their support and certain factions within both parties turned against their leadership.
A grand compromise had “created a measure that was reviled by foes of illegal immigration, opposed by most labor unions and unloved by immigration advocates. Opposition came not only from radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage but also from the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO” (Weisman June 2007). Unions and many other interest groups representing working-class Americans were split on the guest worker provisions, The Washington Post writing that “One side supports a guest-worker program… The other side says such programs encourage employers to pay less, exploit immigrant workers and drive down working conditions for everyone” (Williams 2007). On the other side of the spectrum, similar divisions formed. Amnesty for the 12 million illegal immigrants already present in the country divided “the Wall Street wing of the GOP, which… wants to keep open the spigot of pliant and cheap Spanish-speaking labor” from “much of the Main Street wing, which provides millions of crucial primary and general election votes and would like to build a fence along the Mexican border” (Schaller 2007). Certain parts of the bill were also heavily criticized by immigrant advocacy groups and other civil-rights focused NGOs such as the ACLU. The points-based visa system was condemned for the more limited consideration it gave to familial ties. Many felt that keeping families together should be a more important goal in issuing visas and that less educated and lower skilled immigrants should not necessarily be discriminated against for entry into the US. These groups also took issue with the guest worker program, which they feared would enable companies to exploit foreign workers, who would be especially vulnerable to rights violations.
These conflicts became intractable and there was no obvious way to resolve them. Guest worker programs were essential to securing the support of business, and thus much of the GOP. George Bush himself “said that his support of immigration reform hangs on the inclusion of a temporary-worker provision” (Williams), so without its inclusion the bill likely would not have been created in the first place. Likewise, the amnesty provision was an essential component of reforming the immigration system, as all the previously listed measures would have done nothing about the presence and legal status of the 12 million illegal immigrants that were already present inside the US’s borders. Its inclusion as the central provision of the bill was the underpinning of Democratic support for the legislation as a whole. In spite of this, conservative Republicans could not bring themselves to support outright amnesty. This is despite being given a bevy of concessions, from a stricter and more selective visa system, to tougher domestic enforcement laws; even billions of dollars in increased support for border security did not quell the raucous conservative outcry to CIRA.
On the bill’s final cloture vote, “33 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one independent voted to advance the bill, while 15 Democrats joined 37 Republicans and one independent to block it” (Smith 2007). The number of Republican defections on the bill was much higher than Democratic ones, despite Republicans being given substantial concessions meant to secure their support (concessions that led many of the defecting Democrats to abandon the bill as well). This may be attributable to the efforts of many conservative pundits to discredit the legislation in the eyes of the American public. In fact, “Analysts say public understanding of the issue was clouded by reports by partisan think tanks and lobbyists as well as by accounts from ‘advocacy’ journalists and talk-show hosts and the free-wheeling exchanges of Internet blogs” (Smith). Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, one of the leading critics of CIRA, specifically cited talk radio as a cause of public outcry when he said lawmakers wanted to get the bill passed “before Rush Limbaugh could tell the American people what was in it” (Pear and Hulse 2007). Limbaugh himself said the bill represented “the marginalization, if not the destruction, of the Republican Party. …The current crop of Republican leaders has not only lost the Congress, the current crop of Republican leaders is on the way to destroying the base by signing on to this kind of legislation” (Schaller).
Talk radio and conservative blogs had by this time already cemented themselves as an important part of American politics. Whether or not the information pundits like Limbaugh offered was accurate or fair, their influence on the American public was felt in Washington. As The Washington Post detailed, “A flood of angry phone calls from opponents of the overhaul shut down the Capitol switchboard before the vote, overwhelming the message from a small klatch of immigrant-rights demonstrators urging passage outside the Capitol” (Weisman June 2007). Even if lawmakers had been able to corral.