Why hasn’t immigration reform been passed despite two decades of repeated, bipartisan attempts by Congress? Reform has run into direct opposition on the part of immigration restrictionists: a movement that ranges from those favoring aggressive action against undocumented immigration to those who want to stop all immigration, legal or otherwise. These restrictionists – the term used by NYU historian David M. Reimers, who wrote Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration (1998) – have their origins in the 1980s as a backlash to increasing legal and undocumented immigration from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.
Restrictionists’ collective goal over time has been to restrict pathways to citizenship and residency – a goal that has often put them in direct opposition to many of the reforms proposed in the past 20 years. However, restrictionists haven’t been limited to opposing reforms. Restrictionists have already exerted tremendous influence over American immigration policy, passing consequential legislation during the 1990s and enacting policies through the executive branch during the Trump Administration. Moreover, restrictionists have dramatically reshaped how Americans discuss immigration, introducing harsh and even xenophobic rhetoric into the national discourse.
It’s been over 20 years since the fundamental pillars of the American immigration system have been altered. Today, undocumented immigration at the Southern border is regarded as a crisis, with the Pew Research Center writing that “U.S. Border Patrol reported nearly 200,000 encounters with migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border in July, the highest monthly total in more than two decades.” However, many Republicans oppose reforms that they consider “amnesty,” while plenty of politicians and media figures echo former President Trump’s xenophobia. This partisanship in particular is one of the most enduring impacts of modern restrictionists’ emergence. To understand how immigration became a seemingly impossible issue in Congress, advocates of reform must understand the modern restrictionist movement and its ongoing impact on American immigration politics and policy.
After years of racist quotas that limited immigration from the rest of the world to a trickle, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 resulted in skyrocketing immigration from Latin America and Asia in particular. In addition, Congress passed legislation over time that allowed the growth of refugee populations from Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, among other regions. Key to this increase in legal immigration was the 1965 Act’s mandate on family unification, which allowed citizens to sponsor noncitizen relatives to become citizens. Undocumented immigration also increased from Mexico and Central America as a side effect of the law’s restrictions on Western Hemisphere immigration. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) provided amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants then living in the United States, but its inability to enforce its prohibition on hiring undocumented workers made it a law, in Reimers’ words, “without teeth.”
Increasingly diverse immigration – documented and undocumented – resulted in heightened immigration skepticism. The perceived failure of IRCA to reduce undocumented immigration led many conservatives to perceive “amnesty” as incentivizing further undocumented immigration. This perception has had consequences for all future immigration reform efforts as the far right made “amnesty” a disparaging term synonymous with being “soft” on undocumented immigrants, or “lawbreakers.” Future reformists would have to confront this attack again and again.
The modern restrictionists of the late 20th century seized each issue as a way of advocating for reduced immigration and or immigration enforcement. Among the general arguments that have been made over time: immigrants are an economic drain on society; undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens; undocumented immigrants are lawbreakers; immigrants are likely to commit crime; immigrants are a national security threat; immigrants are “taking away” American society from (white) Americans by changing America’s politics and culture. Not every restrictionist argued the same points, but general sentiment was the same: undocumented immigration (and sometimes legal immigration) needed to be controlled.
Restrictionists in the 1990s asserted themselves in 1994 with the passing of Proposition 187 in California, which aimed to block undocumented immigrants from using public services, including public schools. Advocates took advantage of anti-immigrant sentiment stemming from a poor economy in the early 1990s; they also benefited from the support of the California Republican Party. That same year Congress was retaken by Republicans – the party that “on balance, appeared more willing to cut immigration than were Democrats.” However, restrictionists effectively failed to control the narrative during the 1995-96 debates over immigration reform, as different Republican constituencies, such as the business wing and the Christian Right, largely opposed touching legal immigration, and the debate shifted almost exclusively to dealing with the bipartisan issue of undocumented immigration.
After the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Imigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 as well as welfare reform – which cut benefits for legal immigrants – Congressional Republicans largely lost interest in dealing with immigration, especially as attitudes softened nationwide and in California especially as the state economy recovered. In California, Proposition 187’s passage (and subsequent blocking by a federal judge) had galvanized Mexican immigrants in particular to apply for citizenship. Per Reimers, “new citizens of Latin American ancestry” exercised their citizenship by enthusiastically backing Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. The disappearance of legal immigration in particular as a salient issue among Republican leadership was cemented by the election of George W. Bush, a vocal opponent of Proposition 187 and a strong supporter of legal immigration.
Bush began his first term in office by engaging with Mexico on border-related collaboration and the potential for immigration reform to address undocumented immigrants. However, the political landscape changed dramatically in the aftermath of 9/11, and the familiar pattern of failed immigrantion reforms in Congress emerged. 9/11 halted the Bush Administration’s talks with Mexico as border security became an issue of national security policy. Despite this shift in priority, the issue of undocumented immigration didn’t disappear; Pew Research wrote that the undocumented population increased by a third, from 8.4 million to 11.2 million from 2000 to 2010.
Moderate Congressional Republicans continued to support reform, introducing the bipartisan DREAM Act – which would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children – for a second time in 2003. Bush also continued to support immigration reform, calling for it in his 2004 State of the Union Address.
At the same time, restrictionists remained present in the wider political sphere. They focused on undocumented immigration and also stoked Islamophobia. One sign of the times was the patrolling of part of the Southern border by the “Minuteman Project” in 2005, which organized volunteers to patrol part of the Southern border. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied this continued restrictionist ideology in his first term as governor of California. He campaigned on ending a Democratic program to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses (he repealed it upon taking office), and invited the Minutemen to California in 2005.
The restrictionists made their influence known at the federal level in 2007, when President Bush went all-in on backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide eligible undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. Anti-immigration conservatives strongly opposed the bill, witht more Republican senators (37) ultimately voting against the bill than Democrats (16).
Nativists and advocates of strict crackdowns on undocumented immigrants blasted Bush’s bill, accusing it of the dreaded sin: amnesty. Talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and others spearheaded the push against the bill, with Bush later telling Limbaugh that the labeling of the bill as amnesty was responsible for the bill’s failure. Limbaugh in particular argued that immigration reform was a plot by Democrats to electorally take over the country, while Lou Dobbs warned of “mass immigration” having a “calamitous effect on working citizens and their families.”
The Tea Party’s emergence in 2009 and its driving of the 2010 Republican takeover of the House represented, among other things, a return of the restrictionists to overt prominence within the Republican Party. As University of Washington, Seattle professor Christopher Parker wrote in 2016, “The Tea Party believes America to be in decline — a decline associated with the rising status of marginalized groups such as women, people of color, immigrants, and homosexuals.” He continued that earlier research had concluded that, “Whites who are anxious about the undocumented are more likely to vote for the Republicans and to identify with the GOP… whites’ political preferences have combined to thwart efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
His comments were made after the Tea Party acted on those positions and successfully defeated President Obama’s 2013 immigration reform. Even as 14 Republicans supported immigration reform in the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the bill to a vote. Boehner was cowed by the Tea Party, which organized to defeat his top lieutenant, Eric Cantor. Ironically, Cantor was against reforms like the Senate bill. In addition, the Republican “autopsy” of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 Presidential Election backed the idea of “comprehensive immigration reform” as a means of expanding Republican popularity with Hispanic Americans in particular. Still, Boehner effectively conceded defeat to the Tea Party in killing the bill.
The Tea Party years were marked by ideological conflict between restrictionists taking a hard line on immigration and reform advocates – even within the Tea Party – who supported immigration reform in some capacity. This conflict for party control would largely end with victory on the part of the restrictionists with the candidacy, presidency, and enduring influence of Donald Trump. Although Congress would consider immigration reform during Trump’s presidency, it’s far more consequential to American immigration policy to focus on Trump’s executive actions, administrative decisions, and rhetoric.
Under Trump, the restrictionists moved from the grassroots opposition they had held since the 2000s to a place they hadn’t been since before 1965: the White House. Even though Trump passed no lasting policies through Congress, his emergence and continued presence on the political stage has dramatically expanded the influence and power restrictionist and nativist ideas hold.
During his candidacy and his presidency, Trump supercharged the feelings of white backlash that Parker identified in the Tea Party. Trump argued positions on immigration that NPR’s Don Gonyea wrote appeared to be more in line with Republican base voters than those of Republican advocates of immigration reform. As a candidate and then as President, he mainstreamed the most extreme restrictionist, nativist rhetoric, rhetoric that he turned into policy. His administration enacted substantial restrictions on and barriers against refugees, undocumented immigrants, and legal immigrants through executive orders. A full list of Trump’s actions can be found at the Migration Policy Institute. His statements, and the statements of his chief policy advisor, Stephen Miller, indicated and continue to indicate ideological alignment with the far right position of restrictionists. Trump’s normalization of vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric would pave the way for the use of that same rhetoric by other politicians and members of the media, including Tucker Carlson, who has been accused of effectively amplifying white supremacist talking points.
Trump’s hold on the Republican Party has also marginalized the pro-immigrant wing of the party. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who supported the 2013 immigration reform, was driven from the party for his general opposition to Trump. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), another backer of immigration reform, has shifted his positions to align closer to Trump. Today, Trump and his allies are seeking to harness his continued influence to oppose Afghan refugee resettlement – resettlement that 56% of Republicans polled currently support, per Jill Colvin of the Associated Press. At the same time, many House Republicans continue to attack President Biden and Democrats over undocumented immigration.
Trump’s lasting legacy is widespread support for restrictionism within the Republican Party. His popularity with and influence over Republican voters helped turn support for increasing pathways to citizenship into a minority position within the Republican Party after once being a position held by influential party leaders like Bush and the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ). While Trump’s defeat at the hands of Joe Biden allows Biden to attempt to erase Trump’s policy impact, the majority of House Republicans – although not all – have opposed recent Democratic-led reform efforts. In the Senate, Burgess Everett of Politico reported that Republicans – including Lindsey Graham, who previously reintroduced the DREAM Act with Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) this year – have largely expressed opposition to dealing with immigration during the current border situation.
This opposition effectively dooms the two immigration bills passed by the House, one of which – a bill that will “eventually grant legal status to close to a million farmworkers and their families while updating a key agricultural visa program” – garnered 30 Republican votes, per Nicholas Fandos of The New York Times. It is worth noting that although Everett reported Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) announced they would introduce a Senate version of the latter bill, that bill has not been introduced as of this article’s writing.
As in media circles, Trump’s legacy can also be seen in the overt willingness of some politicians to identify with nativist and white nationalist ideas, like the Republicans who joined a House caucus calling for the preservation of “Anglo-Saxon traditions” and the strong agitation against Afghan refugees. Essentially, Trump’s most enduring immigration legacy will be the conversion of the Republican Party from a party split between pro-immigrant and restrictionist wings to a party largely populated by restrictionists with a nativist wing, with pro-reform types present in the minority.
This radicalization of the Republican Party has dire consequences for Congressional immigration policy, because immigration policy is controlled by Congress. As former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DADA) program – and Trump’s attempts to end DACA – illustrate, only Congress can change the legal pathways to citizenship as well as pass laws that aren’t dependent on the whims of the executive branch. Moreover, immigration remains a major policy concern of Americans. DACA has been suspended for new applicants, refugees continue to arrive at the southern border, and now the United States is working to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees – refugees many Republicans are actively agitating against.
Senate Democrats only hold fifty seats. Given the opposition of previously pro-reform Republicans to taking action, and the continued presence of the filibuster, the options for reform absent a change in Democratic support for harsh border crackdowns, ten Republican Senators supporting comprehensive reform in the style of 2007 and 2013, or the abolition of the filibuster are slim. This scenario complicates the path forward for the House’s currently passed immigration reform bills as well as any future billsthey pass. For now, the current inaction leaves undocumented populations where they have been since IIRIRA: at the mercy of an outdated legal system whose enforcement depends on the executive in a political environment where restrictionists continue to advocate against their presence – with no tangible pathways to citizenship.
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