Will the President or Congress Enact Immigration Reform?

After the midterm elections saw Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate and increase their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Obama said he is willing and eager to work with a Republican Congress to address national priorities, including immigration reform.

The president urged Congress to pass immigration reform legislation or face unilateral action on immigration reform via executive order. In response, House Speaker John Boehner responded during a postelection news conference, “the American people made it clear Election Day: They want to get things done, and they don’t want the president acting on a unilateral basis.”

An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S.; most of them are Latino. Earlier this year, many media outlets began reporting that an increasing proportion of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. were unaccompanied minors from Central American countries. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, federal border control officials caught 52,000 minors from Oct. 1 to June 15, a twofold increase from 2011. 

In the spring of 2013, the Senate—led by a bipartisan group of eight senators called the “Gang of Eight”—drafted legislation to reform U.S. immigration policy. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York introduced the resulting bill titled “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” to the U.S. Senate April 16, 2013. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis two months later.

If passed into law, this act would be the largest overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in 25 years. Some of the major changes it would entail include:

  1. Border Security—The legislation requires the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to devise a strategy to secure the U.S.-Mexico border within six months of the bill’s passage. The bill also allocates $46.3 billion for border enforcement, authorizes the deployment of 38,405 full-time active-duty Border Patrol agents and increases border fencing to a total of 700 miles.
  2. Legal status—The act would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. by providing certain immigrants with registered provisional immigrant status. To be eligible, immigrants would have to have been in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011, and would be required to settle any federal tax liability. Immigrants convicted of certain criminal offenses would not be eligible.
  3. Access to Public Benefits—The bill would prevent those granted registered provisional immigrant status from being eligible for many federal means-tested public benefits programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. These immigrants would be able to participate in the insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, but would not be eligible for the premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions designed to make health insurance more affordable.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Joe Garcia of Florida introduced a bill very similar to the Senate’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act; however, the bill never left committee.

President Obama recently indicated he will no longer wait for the House to act on immigration. During a postelection interview with CBS’ Face the Nation, Obama warned that if Congress fails to pass immigration reform legislation “before the end of the year, I’m going to have to take the steps that I can to improve the system … through executive action.”

He added that an executive order would lack the comprehensive approach needed to address the issue, but said he would sign any Congressional legislation that fully addresses the problem in the interim.

Earlier in the week at a postelection news conference, Boehner expressed his intention to work with the president on immigration reform, but did not comment on whether the House would act on the issue during the lame-duck session or wait until the new 114th Congress convenes next year.

“If he (the president) acts unilaterally on his own outside of his authority… he will poison the well and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving forward in this Congress,” CNN qotes Boehner as saying.