America's Immigration System Is Broken. Congress Can't Seem To Fix It. : Consider This from NPR The U.S. Immigration system isn't working. The last significant reform was in 1986. Presidents and Congress have been trying to fix it and change it ever since.

Congress is at it again, but that effort, like so many others, looks doomed to fail. Just a few hours after the text from the Senate bipartisan bill dropped, Speaker of The House Mike Johnson said IF the bill reaches the house – it will be DEAD on arrival. And on Monday night GOP support for the legislation in the Senate seemed to all but fade away.

As the Senate gets ready to vote on yet another attempt to address immigration in the U.S, we look at why the effort to fix America's broken immigration system fails across decades, administrations and parties.

For sponsor-free episodes of Consider This, sign up for Consider This+ via Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org

America's Immigration System Is Broken. Congress Can't Seem To Fix It.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1198910333/1229640557" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When he was running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan took a position on immigration that would be anathema in today's GOP.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Rather than making them or talking about putting up a fence, why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they're working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they go...

SUMMERS: Fast-forward to 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: I'll get on with the signing and make this into law. Hope nothing happens to me between here and the table.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: Reagan was in his second term, and after years of working across the aisle, the 40th president signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: This bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, that I'll sign in a few minutes, is the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952. It's the...

SUMMERS: The Immigration Reform and Control Act did a couple of things. It toughened security at the Mexican border. Employers faced fines and sanctions if they knowingly hired undocumented workers. And it also allowed many of the illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship. The hope of the Immigration Reform and Control Act was to put a stop to illegal immigration once and for all. That did not happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: ...Because, despite the fact that 1.1 million people became legal citizens after the 1986 law, there were still millions of migrants who didn't qualify for amnesty or simply didn't know how to go about getting it. There also wasn't enough funding to ramp up border control, and the number of migrants arriving at the border grew exponentially year after year. Decades after Ronald Reagan signed his administration's immigration law, illegal immigration was still a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws.

SUMMERS: And his successors were still trying to fix the system, from Bill Clinton...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: ...To George W. Bush...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Amnesty means that you've got to pay, you know, a price for having been here illegally. And this bill does that.

SUMMERS: ...To Barack Obama...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: We'll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel, so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do crossover.

SUMMERS: ...To Donald Trump...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

(CHEERING)

SUMMERS: ...And now Joe Biden. Here's the president speaking about his proposed border security bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If that bill was the law today, I'd shut down the border right now and fix it quickly. A bipartisan bill would be good for America and help fix our broken immigration system and allow speedy access for those who deserve to be here. And Congress needs to get it done.

SUMMERS: But nearly four decades after Ronald Reagan took pen to paper, there has not been any significant immigration legislation passed in the United States. Congress will try again this week, when the Senate takes up a national security bill with about $20 billion to increase immigration restrictions and enforcement and implement new migrant policies. So CONSIDER THIS - as Congress works on yet another attempt to address immigration in the U.S., we look at why the effort to fix America's broken immigration system fails across decades, administrations and parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Tuesday, February 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The U.S. immigration system doesn't work. The last significant reform was in 1986, and presidents and Congress have been trying to fix it and change it ever since. Congress is at it again, but that effort, like so many others before it, looks doomed to fail. Just a few hours after the text from the Senate bipartisan bill dropped, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said if the bill reaches the House, it will be dead upon arrival. And on Monday night, Republican support for the legislation in the Senate seemed to all but fade away. So why can't America fix its immigration problem?

Theresa Cardinal Brown is the Bipartisan Policy Center's senior advisor for immigration and border policy. She has spent decades working on immigration policy, including under two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I asked her if she saw any similar challenges across administrations.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Both President Bush and President Obama were trying to pass comprehensive immigration bills, and at that time, comprehensive immigration reform was widely understood to consist of three major components. One was reforms to the legal immigration system, most often related to balancing between family based immigration and employment-based immigration, temporary worker visas, what the caps and annual limits should be, legalization for the undocumented in the United States and then border security, which, during those years, was really about how do we prevent and deter unlawful migration of Mexicans from Mexico 'cause that was the majority of what was happening at the border. Both presidents tried to do this on a bipartisan basis, and there were bipartisan efforts led both times in the Senate, but in the House and the Senate under both administrations.

At the end of the day, they weren't able to get those bills, you know, through the legislative process, and I think there were a couple of reasons for that. One of them is the bills were negotiated within a group of members. But when the bills came out, then it became a challenge if another member said, hey; wait a minute; what about this thing that I wanted, or, I object to this piece of it. And if any of those pieces in that really tightly negotiated bill were taken out, such as happened with the Kennedy-McCain efforts, then the total number of amount of support and votes for the bill collapsed. They were both committed to trying to do it on a bipartisan basis. I think what we have seen at different periods of time since then, under President Trump and in President Biden's first couple years, is attempts to do it all with your own party.

SUMMERS: From your view, from a policy standpoint, why do you think it is so difficult, at least that we've seen so far, to craft legislation on the immigration issue that can be successful?

BROWN: I think it comes down to the fact that immigration is - immigration law specifically and policy is extremely complex. There are very few members of Congress or staff on Capitol Hill that have a real strong, detailed understanding of the law, the policy and how it actually operates. U.S. federal court judges have likened immigration law second only to tax law in its complexity. And so I think that that creates two challenges - one, that when you're trying to craft legislation, if you don't have that deep knowledge, you don't necessarily know how to get to the outcome you're trying to get to in a way that's workable. You don't know how what you're trying to propose would interact with other parts of the law. And so without that knowledge or understanding, it's harder to do. It also means that immigration as a system resists simple solutions. Even though politics, as you're probably aware, is full of simplistic statements about really complicated problems, simplistic statements don't actually mean that you can have simplistic solutions.

SUMMERS: We've been talking about these policies, and I want to ask you a question that kind of gets at the humanity here. The latest attempt to overhaul immigration policy, again, seems like it is not going to become reality. But what is the cost of the failure to pass reforms, first for the people who are coming to the border?

BROWN: The system that we have in place at the border now was designed for a very, very different border than we have today. As I mentioned earlier, it was designed when 90-plus percent of all the people that were encountered trying to enter at the border were Mexicans, usually trying to sneak in, evade detection and look for work. Now we have people coming from a hundred-plus countries around the world, the majority of whom are turning themselves in to border patrol to try to ask for asylum, many of whom don't know what that means. But that's what they understand. That's how they get protection and get into the country - and their families, their children in very, very vulnerable situations. And so our process that had asylum as this limited exception to, if you enter between the ports of entry, we're going to deport you, suddenly was overwhelmed with a number of people that our system could not manage. It just no longer suits what we're doing today, what we're seeing today.

SUMMERS: I mean, you study this. You have worked on this issue for so long. So I'd like to end by asking you, do you think that right now significant reform is, in fact, achievable?

BROWN: Well, I think it has to be. I mean, you know, there's this debate going back and forth that we've seen about, you know, does the president have authority to do this on his own? Here's what I would tell you. President Obama, President Trump and President Biden have all tried to do this on their own, and none of them have succeeded at length over time. And the policies they have all tried to put in place have all been caught up in the courts, which means if you ask me today, who's responsible for making policy at the border, it's actually the courts. And the courts bounce back and forth between letting a policy continue or taking it down. And so we haven't had consistency. It's - and that creates more chaos at the border. So, you know, I think at the end of the day, Congress has to take this up. As hard politically as it is, at some point - necessity. And hopefully their own voters will say, hey. Stop kicking the can down the road. Stop saying you can't do it. You need to do it because there's not really another option that's going to change anything.

SUMMERS: I guess I'm just curious, on a personal level, as someone who has invested so much time and so many years under various administrations working on this issue, what it feels like to watch it continue to hit an impasse again and again. And there seems to consistently be an inability to move forward in a substantive manner - what that feels like for you.

BROWN: So I have a standard line that I use when people ask me about this. I say, you can either be an optimist or a masochist, depending on what you want to call me, for doing this for so long. I'm going to choose the former because I firmly believe that our country needs immigration. And we need a system that works, and it has to work for everybody. So, you know, I made a promise to myself a while ago that I wouldn't retire until I saw some change. My husband is now doubting that promise. But I just feel like we have to get it done. And if I can play a role in helping that come to fruition as long as I can, I will keep trying.

SUMMERS: That is Theresa Cardinal Brown. She's the Bipartisan Policy Center senior advisor for immigration and border policy. This episode was produced by Brianna Scott. It was edited by Courtney Dorning and Roberta Rampton. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun. And before we go, one more piece of news - this one is about our show. You can now support this podcast by signing up for CONSIDER THIS+. You'll get to hear every episode without messages from sponsors, which means you'll hear what you need to know in even less time. And your contribution will help make the work of NPR journalists possible. You can sign up on our show page on Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org. That link can be found in our episode notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Juana Summers.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.