What Was In The Bipartisan Immigration Bill That Almost Passed 4 Years Ago? And Why Does It Matter?

Trump’s out rallying again. This time in Biloxi, Mississippi in support of Republican Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith. She’s in a runoff election today against Democrat Mike Espy. (Also, if the sole black person behind Trump looks familiar to you, he should. It’s the same person who’s appeared behind Trump at multiple rallies in multiple places for years. Here’s a link to a story about him in the Washington Post.)


The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act Passed 68-32 In The Senate, Then Republicans Never Allowed It To Be Voted On In The House


We were reminded of this by President Trump when he went around this weekend making excuses for separating children from their parents at the border by saying Obama did it too.

Now, we’re pretty sure Obama never also fired tear gas at families seeking asylum–as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers did near San Diego this past weekend–but Trump’s been making excuses for that too, saying “the tear gas is a very minor form of the tear gas itself…it’s very safe…”

Against this backdrop, a few things to keep in mind:

  1. The Obama Administration didn’t make family separation its official first-line policy, with a stated aim of deterrence.
  2. Even if Obama did exactly what Trump says he did (which he didn’t), why would Trump want to point to the actions of someone he’s repeatedly characterized as “a total disaster” to defend himself? And even if it was the case (which it wasn’t), it doesn’t make it right.
  3. And Obama had an answer in the form of that bipartisan bill that went flying through the Senate, controlled by Democrats at the time, but with plenty of Republican support. Then, House Speaker John Boehner refused to consider it in the Republican-controlled House, where it also likely would’ve passed. The problem? Partly just Republicans not seeing any short term advantages to handing Obama any big legislative wins. Also partly because of opposition from Tea Partiers. Their rhetoric foretold a lot of what we’d end up seeing in the 2016 elections. As a Brookings report summarized it at the time: anxiety about “Latino immigrants taking over ‘their’ country”. Anti-immigrant firebrand, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and his young communications director Stephen Miller, who’s now Trump’s senior policy advisor, played major roles in making sure the legislation died, which paved the way for an early liaison with Trump.

So what was that bill all about? What did it include?

  • Funding for a 700-mile long border fence. Leading to “persistent surveillance of 100 percent of the border”. And $7.5-billion to pay for it. Not quite what Trump has in mind for his wall. And he wants $25-billion. But not that far off either. (Trump’s suggested he might refuse to sign any spending bill that comes up this year unless it contains full funding for his wall, but agreed to hold off on those threats of a government shutdown until after the Midterm Elections. So that battle is imminent now).
  • An end to the visa lottery.
  • Implementation of a merit points system so immigrants could be rated and ranked by “skills, employment history, and educational credentials”.
  • Making what Trump calls “chain migration” or the law called “family-based immigration” a lot more difficult. That is, family members other than spouses wouldn’t have easily been able to join a recent legal immigrant.
  • Hiring and assigning nearly 20,000 new federal agents to the Southern border.
  • Protection of Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who accompanied their parents to the U.S. as children), and agriculture workers, and fast-tracking a path to citizenship for them.
  • Implementation of E-Verify, so employers could check visa status of a prospective employee on a centralized database.

Sounds a lot like what Trump’s been pushing. Not quite

Because the bill also:

  • Would’ve provided a 13-year path to citizenship to undocumented workers already in the country.
  • Would’ve expanded legal immigration. (Even though Trump says he’s pro-legal immigration, his administration has proposed cutting back on the number of people admitted each year, and is even looking into revoking status for some legal immigrants).
  • Would’ve made it easier for asylum-seekers to enter the U.S. by allowing asylum officers to grant asylum, without requiring an asylum-seeker to get a judgment from an immigration court.

All those things are pretty far off from anything Trump’s discussing or proposing now.

The aim was to initially pay for most of the changes through increases in visa fees. After that, the Congressional Budget Office estimated though higher income tax and other revenues, the bill would:

“Reduce the federal budget deficit by approximately$1 trillion over 20 years, would boost the U.S. economy as whole without negatively affecting U.S. workers, and would greatly reduce future undocumented immigration”.

At the time, the Republican move to kill the bill was heralded as a major blunder for the Republican party. That same Brookings reported rather haughtily opined:

“If Republicans continue letting the Tea Party’s nativist politics lead its legislative agenda, it will lose an opportunity to help deliver comprehensive immigration reform to America. Given the demographic trends and popularity of this legislation, this failure could, in turn, cost Republicans the White House again in 2016 and cause them to lose even more seats in Congress than they did in 2012.”

And even the RNC had suggested:

“[We] must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

Little did they know that 2 years later that fear of foreigners would help propel Donald Trump into the Presidency, with that “core constituency” turning out to be a lot bigger and a lot more energized than  even Trump’s own party imagined.