2013 Was a Wild Ride for Anyone Who Follows Immigration—and 2014 Will Be Too

I’m saddened because I wasn’t able to celebrate the passage of comprehensive immigration reform this year when commemorating International Migrants Day on December 18. Nevertheless, for people who care about immigration, 2013 was an intense and interesting year. Following is a quick wrap up of what happened this year, and what to be hopeful for in 2014.

To start, the lopsided share of the Latino vote won by President Obama in his reelection helped put a major federal immigration reform back on the table. Then at the end of 2012, eight members of the U.S. Senate began negotiating a bipartisan federal immigration reform bill. And in 2012 and 2013 anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama, which sought to make life so miserable for immigrants lacking formal legal status that they would “self-deport” back to their countries of origin, were defeated in the courts one by one.

In mid-2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill by a vote of 68 to 32. There is no question that the Senate bill is historic: Both political parties agreed to reform just about every aspect of the U.S. immigration system, and create a legalization program for the 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. Unauthorized immigrants live in constant fear of deportation and separation from their families, and the 8 million of them in the U.S. labor market go to work every day vulnerable to exploitation because employers can and do threaten them with deportation if they attempt to organize or join a union, or speak out about unfair, unsafe, or illegal working conditions. And we know that as a result, unauthorized immigrant workers suffer from wage theft (i.e., are not paid the wages they are owed under minimum wages and overtime laws) at an astonishingly high rate. Legalizing these workers would not only be just and humane, but would improve wages and working conditions for all low-wage workers and help counter the current race-to-the-bottom pursued by many employers in terms of labor standards.

Nevertheless, the 2013 Senate bill is a mixed bag, as I’ve written in detail about in an op-ed for Roll Call. And my guide to the bill lays out the substance of the specific provisions it contains. Here I will simply note that the bill’s proposals to dramatically expand guestworker programs and spend an ill-advised tens of billions of dollars to further militarize the border are harmful and counterproductive. But on balance, the Senate bill is worth enacting because it would dramatically improve the lives of unauthorized workers and their families and better protect guestworkers from abuse and human trafficking when they are recruited abroad by foreign labor contractors.

However, any reform will require the cooperation of the U.S. House of Representatives. According to multiple media reports, the Republicans who control the House seem to be having an internal (and, given recent polling, perhaps existential) debate over how to proceed on immigration reform. It’s clear that Republicans in the House do not like the Senate’s comprehensive approach, and prefer a series of smaller reforms of the various aspects of the immigration system. A handful of immigration bills in the House have been introduced, reported on by the media, or passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, but none has been debated or voted on by the entire House. House Republican leadership publicly made it clear that no such votes would occur this year, which angered and disillusioned advocates, but didn’t diminish their resolve; the end-of-the-year surge in calls for action by immigration reform advocates included a well-publicized fast on the National Mall to pressure the House into taking on immigration and a call for President Obama to use executive authority to reduce his administration’s record-setting pace of deportations.

So what’s next for federal immigration reform in 2014?

The fate of any true and meaningful reform is now squarely in the hands of the House of Representatives, and especially the Republicans who are in charge there. Until recently I would have predicted insufficient political will in the House to take up immigration in 2014. But recently there have been a number of signs which suggest a shift in the mindset in the House. Whether it was House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hiring a top aide with a background in immigration or the chair of the Judiciary Committee saying immigration would be a “top priority” in 2014, there is some evidence that the House will not steer away from immigration next year. Nevertheless, no one should expect much in the House until after most of the primary elections are over in late spring or early summer. Immigration reform is a controversial issue among conservative legislators (although, not so much among conservative voters), so incumbent Republicans running for reelection are not unreasonable for worrying about attacks in the primaries by challengers taking extreme positions on immigration in order to use it as a wedge issue.

What if federal reform fails in 2014?

If Congress does not enact immigration reforms by the end of the current session in 2014—which is not an unlikely scenario—two notable things may occur. First, President Obama will face increased pressure to use executive authority to defer the removal of noncriminal immigrants in deportation proceedings. The president has indicated he is not inclined to take this action and believes he lacks the legal authority to do so. The president surely doesn’t have the authority to stop all the deportations, but he could certainly expand the criteria for immigrants qualifying for “deferred action” to cover beyond just those who arrived in the United States as children and qualify under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. He could, for example, include noncriminal unauthorized immigrants who have children who are U.S. citizens or who qualify for DACA. Although Obama seems dead set against this now, the lack of any real prospect for reform by the end of 2014 just might be the thing that changes his mind.

Secondly, individual states may decide to take action to protect unauthorized immigrants. While states with legislatures that favor harsh enforcement-only policies are constrained by recent legal precedents, other states with legislatures that value the contributions of their immigrant populations may begin enacting laws that protect unauthorized immigrants. California is already leading the way and is the perfect example for other like-minded states: In October, the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown enacted three laws that protects unauthorized workers in the workplace by prohibiting employers from using threats related to immigration status to intimidate or retaliate against workers or to commit wage theft (although they’ve received little attention, these are perhaps the most significant immigration-related state laws ever to be enacted). Brown also signed laws that allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally and help keep immigrants who have not committed any serious crimes from being caught up in the federal government’s deportation dragnet, known as Secure Communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Governor Brown cited the federal government’s inaction as one of the main reasons he was willing to sign bills that proposed new protections for unauthorized immigrants in the state.

But a meaningful and lasting solution for unauthorized immigrants and the dysfunctional U.S. immigration system must come from Congress. Important steps were taken in that direction in 2013, and there’s no doubt that 2014 will be another wild ride for anyone who follows news and debates about immigration policy and politics. Next year EPI will continue to produce research and analysis that makes proposed immigration laws and policies more comprehensible and transparent—especially when they impact workers and the labor market—and that recognize the value that immigration and immigrants add to the U.S. economy.