Immigration reform stalled decade after Gang of 8’s big push

FILE - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, speaks of immigration reform legislation outlined by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Charles Schumer, Graham, R-S.C., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

MIAMI — Ten years ago this month, Sen. Chuck Schumer declared, “We all know that our immigration system is broken, and it’s time to get to work on fixing it.” Sen. John McCain quoted Winston Churchill. But it was Lindsey Graham who offered the boldest prediction. 

“I think 2013 is the year of immigration reform,” the South Carolina Republican said. 

It wasn’t. And neither has any year since those “Gang of Eight” senators from both parties gathered in a Washington auditorium to offer hopeful pronouncements. In fact, today’s political landscape has shifted so dramatically that immigrant advocates and top architects of key policies over the years fear that any hope of an immigration overhaul seems further away than ever. 

“There are big questions about whether or not anything in the immigration family — anything at all — has the votes to pass,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as President Barack Obama’s top immigration adviser and was a senior member of Joe Biden’s transition team before he entered the White House. 

The last extensive package came under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and President George H.W. Bush signed a more limited effort four years later. That means federal agents guarding the border today with tools like drones and artificial intelligence are enforcing laws written back when cellphones and the internet were novelties. Laying the problem bare in the deadliest of terms was a fire last month at a detention center on the Mexican side of the border that killed 39 migrants. 

Congress came the closest to a breakthrough on immigration in 2013 with the Gang of Eight, which included Schumer, a New York Democrat who is now Senate majority leader, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Their proposal cleared the Senate that June and sought a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally and expanded work visas while tightening border security and mandating that employers verify workers’ legal status. 

Democrats cheered a modernized approach to immigration. Republicans were looking for goodwill within the Latino community after Obama enjoyed strong support from Hispanic voters while being reelected in 2012. 

Prominent supporters of the proposal were as diverse as the powerful AFL-CIO labor union and the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There was more momentum than there had been for large immigration changes that fizzled in 2006 and 2007 under President George W. Bush. 

Still, Republican House Speaker John Boehner gauged support for the Gang of Eight bill in the GOP-controlled chamber in January 2014 and said too many lawmakers distrusted the Obama administration. By that summer, the bill was dead. 

Obama then created a program protecting from deportation migrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. The Supreme Court has previously upheld it, but the court’s relatively recent 6-3 conservative majority could pose long-term threats. 

Years after the creation of Obama’s program, President Donald Trump called for walling off all of the nation’s 2,000-mile southern border, and his administration separated migrant children from their parents and made migrants wait in Mexico while seeking U.S. asylum. 

Biden endorsed a sweeping immigration package on his Inauguration Day, but it went nowhere in Congress. His administration has since loosened some Trump immigration policies and tightened others, even as his party has seen Republican support rise among Hispanic voters. 

Officials have continued to enforce Title 42 pandemic-era health restrictions that allowed for migrants seeking U.S. asylum to be quickly expelled, though they are set to expire May 11. The Biden White House is also considering placing migrant families in detention centers while they wait for their asylum cases, something the Obama and Trump administrations did. 

Gil Kerlikowske, who was commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under Obama, said “a lot of things are coming together at once,” including Title 42 possibly ending, a spike in the number of South American migrants crossing through the treacherous rainforests of the Darian Gap between Colombia and Panama, and a 2024 presidential election ratcheting up the political pressure. 

“Two and a half years into the administration, there really hasn’t been any announcement of what is our immigration policy,” Kerlikowske said. “Getting laws passed is almost impossible. But what’s been the policy?”