U.S. Senate at impasse on immigration bill
The compromises emerging from closed-door efforts to forge a Senate
consensus on immigration have even ardent supporters of changing the law
wondering whether the current dysfunctional system might not be so bad after
The Senate impasse offers a vivid demonstration of how daunting,
politically and practically, it is to solve the issue of 12 million human
beings living illegally in the country. Their existence is the result of past
compromises and their unintended consequences, stretching over several decades
and rooted in a long history of divided public opinion that veers spasmodically
between nativism and inclusion.
Congress last overhauled U.S. immigration law in 1986, providing amnesty
to 3 million illegal immigrants, half the illegal population at the time, but
without expanding future legal ways of entering the country. Within 10 years,
the illegal population had rebounded, and Congress passed another law
attempting to toughen border enforcement, pouring money into the Border Patrol
and building a fence in San Diego, among other things. Another decade has
passed, and the illegal population has reached the size of the population of
The current Senate bill is “a valiant effort to try to salvage a bill on
which a lot of political blood has been spilled, but I don’t think a bill
should be salvaged by violating … accepted understanding of what went well
and what did not go well with the 1986 legislation,” said Demetrios
Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan
The danger, he said, is that Congress could produce legislation that “does
not solve fundamental problems we have with immigration today, or solves them
in such a way that I can see clearly three or five years from now, starting the
same 20-year cycle of trying to fix a lousy system.”
With Republicans deeply divided over a bipartisan bill that emerged from
the Senate Judiciary Committee — and Democrats fearful that they have
already compromised too much — the Senate came to a standstill again
Wednesday as proponents and opponents engaged in hours of negotiation and
brinksmanship. Votes to decide the fate of the bill are scheduled to begin
The Senate bill is modeled largely on a bipartisan effort by Sens. John
McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would provide a chance for
permanent residence after about 11 years for the estimated 12 million illegal
immigrants if they learn English, pass background checks, remain employed, take
civics courses, pay hefty fines and pay back taxes.
The bill was cobbled together under a crushing deadline from several
conflicting pieces of legislation. Roughly 300 pages long, it is a complex and
far-reaching amalgam that includes everything from a farmworker program to a
“The Senate Judiciary Committee was trying to act with a gun not just
pointed at its head but against its temple and cocked,” Papademetriou said.
“Everything including the kitchen sink is in that legislation.”
Many Republicans believe the bill provides amnesty for those who broke the
law to enter the country. To draw more Republican votes, supporters are
floating various compromises to somehow evade the amnesty charge.
But that task requires mixing oil and water: making illegal immigrants go
home while allowing them to stay.
The irony is that almost no one in the Senate who opposes the bill thinks
it is wise or practical to round up 12 million people and send them home. And
supporters say they oppose amnesty, but believe illegal immigrants should be
allowed to earn legal permanent residence.
One plan under intense discussion would divide the 12 million into three
groups, depending on how long they have been in the country. Newer arrivals
would face more difficult requirements.
One of those rules would be to touch base at the border, by somehow
checking in at a port of entry to make it appear they are exiting the country
if only for a very short time.