The long shadow cast by the 9/11 attacks is playing a part in President Donald Trump’s plan to repeal the program giving protection from deportation to 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States by their undocumented parents when they were children. It also helps explains why getting any kind of immigration compromise through Congress within the six-month window Trump has set is going to be extremely hard, if not impossible, to achieve.
Exactly 16 years ago, on Sept. 6, 2001, then Mexican President Vicente Fox was welcomed to Washington on a state visit hosted by President George W. Bush, and delivered a joint address to Congress, in which he called for legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Fox got a standing ovation — something that would be unimaginable in the current political climate.
At the time, the dream of “comprehensive immigration reform” was tantalizingly close. Bush, who up to that time had dismissed the idea of any kind of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, indicated he would be willing to consider some form of legalization for undocumented workers who first would be given legal “guest worker” status in the United States.
“I fully understand President Fox’s desire for us to come up with a solution quickly, to expedite the process,” Bush said on that day. “And we’re going to do that.”
But within days of Fox’s visit the 9/11 attacks occurred, which instantly transformed the immigration debate into one around national security, and loud calls for tighter border controls. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was absorbed into an entirely new department focused on “homeland security,” where it remains today.
The drive to legalize undocumented immigrants in the United States as part of a comprehensive reform package has effectively been stalled since then. “The immigration debate in Washington and beyond is now viewed almost entirely through the prism of national security and immigration enforcement,” a paper by the Migration Policy Institute observed.
Several compromise efforts over the next decade to get comprehensive reforms through Congress failed — most of them failing in the Senate before they were even considered in the House.
At least twice during his presidency, Bush pushed a program that would grant “guest worker” status to some undocumented immigrants who could eventually then qualify for a green card giving them permanent residency in the United States. His last push came towards the end of his presidency when a drive to pass what was called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 failed spectacularly, with both Republicans and Democrats opposing the bipartisan legislation. It’s principal author was Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., with help from others like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
“I had hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment,” said then-Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “What we got was a bipartisan defeat.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., now the U.S. Attorney General, was one of the main opponents of the bill and its granting of “permanent resident status” to some unauthorized immigrants, which he described as a form of amnesty. But the bill also drew opposition from labor groups who opposed the guest worker provisions in the bill.
After the Senate failed to approve the legislation, Kennedy said prophetically, “The situation is going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Efforts to pass much more modest legislation in Congress just focusing on children who were brought here by their unauthorized parents — the so-called “Dreamers” — have similarly failed over a 16-year period.
In 2012, after Congress did nothing to address the issue, President Barack Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offered legal protection to undocumented immigrants over age 15, allowing them to work legally in the U.S. on renewable two-year permits. On Tuesday the Trump administration announced it will begin to phase out the DACA program. Later in the day, Trump stated on Twitter he would give Congress six months to “legalize DACA” or he would “revisit this issue.”
Action by Congress within that six-month deadline set by Trump might conceivably be feasible if Trump were calling for a straightforward legislative fix to the DACA problem. But instead he has raised the bar exceptionally high by calling for far more ambitious reforms. In the statement he issued Tuesday following Session’s announcement, he called for legislation that “puts American jobs and security first,” arguing that Congress should also reform the nation’s long-standing legal immigration system, which is based mainly on family reunification, and instead transform it to one based more on “merit” and an immigrant’s work skills.
Trump also explicitly endorsed the RAISE Act promoted by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ariz., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., which would cut legal immigration by half.
Trump’s expectation of far more comprehensive reforms than just DACA was reinforced by his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Tuesday that the president is not looking for “just one tweak to the immigration system” but for “really big fixes, really big reforms.”
The last time Congress approved a legalization program of any kind was in 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That legislation, which was supposed to put an end to illegal immigration, had multiple unintended consequences, including failing to stem the flow of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S.
With that history as a backdrop, and complicated by security concerns, giving Congress a mere six months to reach agreement on an issue often driven more by fear than reason seems wildly unrealistic.
One way legislation might emerge from Congress is if Republican leaders were willing to bypass members who view any kind of legalization as “amnesty. But so far, the House Republican leadership has not indicated that it is willing to move ahead without getting immigration naysayers on board.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday that DACA recipients should “rest easy,” because Congress will act within Trump’s time frame to get legislation that he will sign.
But when he became speaker, Ryan pledged not to try to pass immigration laws without the majority of the GOP caucus. He reaffirmed that pledge Wednesday. He also indicated that any legislation would have to include “border enforcement” provisions, which are likely to be deal breakers for many Democrats if these include funding for a border wall of any kind.
All this points to the multiple political and legislative fault lines that must be traversed to get legislation passed by March 5. If members can channel the spirit of bipartisanship and compromise that prevailed in talks between the Mexican and U.S. presidents who were in office on Sept. 6, 2001, something may emerge from Congress. But under current conditions, that seems highly unlikely. At that point, lawmakers may have no choice but to take Trump up on his offer to “revisit” the issue, whatever that actually means.