What Will Comprehensive Immigration Reform Look Like in 2013?

By Tom K. Wong, tomkwong@ucsd.edu, @twong002

As the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) debate proceeds in Congress, much of how the final bill will look – as well as what is likely to give rise to some of the most impassioned debates – will be determined by the amendments that are ultimately introduced and voted on. The history of U.S. immigration policy makes clear that such amendments will not simply change an immigration bill at the margins. After all, it was an amendment to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that made Chinese persons ineligible for U.S. citizenship. A look at the amendments that were introduced during recent (failed) immigration reform efforts thus provides a window into what we can expect in the coming months as the 2013 version of CIR takes shape.

While the “devil remains in the details” when it comes to the exact contours of immigration reform, in analyzing past amendments, it may very well be the case that the details are already known. For one, many of the amendments that came up during the 2006 and 2007 pushes for CIR in the Senate either foreshadow – or, in some cases, even mirror – what we know so far about current reform proposals. These include various enforcement triggers before legalization (e.g. the Isakson Amendment 3961 in 2006 and the Vitter Amendment 1139 in 2007), an 8-year legalization process (the Feinstein Amendment 4087 in 2006), and making undocumented immigrants go to the “back of the line” before they can begin the process of legalization (the Allard Amendment 1189 in 2007). Second, many of the legislators who introduced some of the most controversial amendments during previous reform efforts are still in office today. This includes Louisiana Senator David Vitter, a Republican who introduced amendments in 2006 and 2007 that, if passed, would have removed legalization from CIR altogether.

On the one hand, this means that those currently crafting an immigration reform bill can look to recent history to create a bill with the broadest base of legislative support. On the other hand, the sheer number of amendments that we are likely to see and the fact that many of these amendments will work at cross-purposes, means that any bill that is introduced – no matter how carefully written – will undergo significant changes during the legislative process. Indeed, during the debate over H.R. 4437 in the House in 2005, 31 amendments were brought to the floor and voted on. During the push for CIR in the Senate in 2006, 45 amendments were voted on. In 2007, this number was 35. In all, a combined 71 percent of amendments were passed during these last three major immigration reform efforts.

Here are just a few examples that illustrate the impact of these amendments. Had H.R. 4437 become law in 2005 it would have contained language that would have required the reduction of the visa backlog in 6 months (the Velazquez Amendment 657), but it would have also eliminated the diversity visa (the Goodlatte Amendment 650). And had the 2006 CIR bill become law, the total number of immigrants admitted annually as legal permanent residents (LPRs) would have been capped at 650,000 (the Bingaman Amendment 4131). These amendments would have fundamentally changed our legal admissions system. Moreover, in the arguably more charged area of legalization, had the 2007 CIR bill passed, the personal information of those who applied for legalization, but were denied, would have been shared with immigration enforcement agencies (the Cornyn Amendment 1250).

The following identifies major amendments that are likely to reappear, either as part of a bill that is introduced, or again as an amendment, during the 2013 CIR debate (click on the infographic, it is interactive).


The current discussion about legalization revolves mostly around the question of a path to citizenship. To be clear, legalization without a path to citizenship, which would create a large pool of legal persons without rights that are commensurate with the rest of the population, is largely unprecedented. In this sense, we are in uncharted waters. This notwithstanding, several amendments that were introduced during recent immigration reform efforts provide a great deal of insight into what we can expect once a bill is introduced.

In addition to border security and immigration enforcement triggers we are likely to see attempts to:

  • Remove legalization/path to citizenship from CIR altogether
  • Share information on denied applicants for legalization/path to citizenship with enforcement agencies
  • Set minimum or maximum wait times before legalization/path to citizenship can occur
  • Limit those who are eligible to adjust their immigration status
  • Establish burden of proof criteria for those who apply for legalization/path to citizenship 
  • Debate over what “earned legalization/citizenship” entails
  • Limiting benefits to the newly legalized population (e.g., no social security benefits, non-eligibility for earned income tax credit)


When it comes to legal admissions, it is clear that the 2013 version of CIR will seek to completely overhaul our current system. In addition to the list below, we are also likely to see efforts to redefine spouses as permanent partners in order to include LGBT families in the family reunification process (see the Uniting American Families Act). If not already included in a bill, we are also likely to see amendments that seek to:

  • Eliminate the diversity visa
  • Limit the total number of persons admitted annually into the U.S.
  • Increase visas for STEM degree holders
  • Reclassify spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents as immediate relatives (see Reuniting American Families Act
  • Limit family reunification (see Nuclear Family Priority Act)
  • Broaden the categories of people subject to permanent immigration bars
  • Reduce the visa backlog

Immigration Enforcement

Many of the amendments that were introduced during previous reform efforts addressed the issue of immigration enforcement, in particular, interior immigration enforcement. Regarding immigration detention and deportation, we are likely to see efforts to:

  • Both end and expand the practice of expedited removal
  • Prohibit immigration courts from ordering a stay of deportation or removal
  • Create waivers of inadmissibility or removal when deportation would result in hardship to a spouse, parent, or child of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident
  • Provide secure alternatives to detention
  • Build at least 20 new immigration detention centers

Regarding employer sanctions, local cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and the criminalization of unauthorized immigration, we are likely to see efforts to:

  • Make E-Verify permanent and mandatory, while also raising or setting limits on the penalties that employers who hire unauthorized workers have to pay
  • Deepen information sharing between federal and local law enforcement agencies
  • Withhold law enforcement grants from localities that do not share information with immigration enforcement agencies
  • Provide training and resources to state and local law enforcement agencies so that they can assist in the enforcement of immigration law
  • Establish minimum criminal sentences for those who reenter the U.S. after being deported
  • Criminalize unlawful presence

Border Security

During the debate over H.R. 4437 in 2005, several amendments related to border security were introduced and voted on. These included amendments that set deadlines to achieve operational control of the border (within 18 months), increase the amount of border fencing, increase the number of border patrol personnel, and enhance the use of surveillance technologies. In 2006, the Senate repeated many of these same calls, while adding the creation of a rapid response border unit, which would require 1,000 additional personnel, 250 power boats, and 100 helicopters, among other resources. At this stage, many of the border measures that were called for during previous immigration reform efforts, have largely been met (see here).

Special thanks to Hillary Kosnac, Cat Benson, Brana Vlasic, Cameron Kaveh, and Sierra Graves for wonderful research assistance.


Are Border Enforcement Triggers Necessary?

By Wayne A. Cornelius, wcorneli@ucsd.edu

Damien Cave’s recent report on border security illustrates the futility of further investments in the kind of border enforcement that some members of Congress find necessary as a trigger for comprehensive immigration reform.

The key statistic for measuring the efficacy of border enforcement is the “eventual success rate.” That is, on a given trip to the border, what percentage of unauthorized migrants, even if apprehended initially, can get through if they just keep trying?

Each year since 2005 my research team at the University of California, San Diego has interviewed hundreds of undetected migrants and potential migrants in their homes on both sides of the border. Among our most recent (January-February 2013) interviewees, 86 percent of those apprehended on the first try were able to enter undetected on the second or third try — down from our previous studies, but still impressive testimony to the near-impossibility of stopping migrants determined to feed their families or reunite with U.S. relatives.

With detected illegal entries down to 1971 levels – due mostly to weak labor demand in the U.S. – no appreciable amount of additional deterrence can be wrung from more spending on border agents, hardware, and technology.

We should declare victory at the border and move on to the hard work of ensuring that future flows of migrants will be predominantly legal and creating a meaningful path to legalization for those already here.

Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author of “Budgeting for Immigration Enforcement” (National Academies of Science, 2011).

Will Comprehensive Immigration Reform Pass in the Senate?

By Tom K. Wong, tomkwong@ucsd.edu, @twong002

Conclusion: 60 filibuster-proof votes for CIR in the Senate are within reach.


Will comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) pass in 2013? In a recent whirlwind of events since President Obama’s reelection, the Senate “gang of 8” introduced its draft principles on immigration reform, the President then addressed the nation describing his own vision of reform just one day after the gang of 8 unveiled their blueprint, the White House promptly released more details of the president’s proposal immediately after his speech, the House Judiciary Committee recently held its first hearing on the issue, and then the Senate Judiciary Committee did the same. The momentum that has been building towards CIR, which started well before last November’s election, has shown no signs of slowing down. However, momentum itself is no guarantee that reform will happen.

As a matter of politics, the key question is whether there are enough votes in Congress? More specifically, are there 60 filibuster-proof votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House? While there are no crystal balls to tell us how legislators will ultimately vote, the recent history of immigration politics in the U.S. provides sufficient information to make informed predictions, not only about how current members of Congress are likely to vote on CIR, but also about what the final bill is likely to include (or not include).

Three key factors are worth noting.

  • First, while the current push for immigration reform represents its own distinct stage, many of the key actors are still the same. Nearly 200 representatives who are currently in the House were also in office during the contentious debate over H.R. 4437 in 2005. In the Senate, nearly 50 sitting Senators were also around during the 2006 immigration reform effort. This provides a rich pool of voting history to analyze and learn from.
  • Second, while we still do not know the details of the Senate or House bills, a) the degree of overlap between the gang of 8’s principles, the President’s proposal, and the 2006/2007 Senate CIR bills, coupled with b) the many lingering stand-alone immigration-related bills that have been introduced in Congress over the past few years, suggests that while the devil remains in the details, many of the details are already known. This is not to suggest that 2013’s bill will perfectly mirror previous reform efforts. Rather, it is to say that in analyzing the hundreds of amendments to CIR 2006 and 2007 and all of the immigration-related bills that have been introduced in Congress since 2005, we can create a map of the road ahead.
  • Third, the November presidential election showed that immigrant communities – and communities of color more generally – are increasingly flexing their political muscle. This adds confidence to our ability to use the demographic makeup of states and districts to inform how we think legislators are likely to vote on CIR.

Senate Prediction

60 filibuster-proof votes for CIR in the Senate are within reach. In fact, the data suggest that there are currently 52 solid yes votes with 19 additional Senators that lean towards voting yes. The 52 solid yes votes are spread across 31 states. They include the Senators who we would expect to support CIR (e.g., Democrat Senators in states like California and New York). This group also includes 8 Republicans. The 19 Senators that lean yes are spread across 15 states and include 10 Democrats and 9 Republicans. A full list of Senators broken down into their predicted categories of support and opposition can be found here.

71 yes votes is an ambitious prediction, and represents a high range. It is only reasonable if we a) expect Democrats who have supported CIR in the past to vote for CIR in 2013, b) expect Democrats without a robust voting record to analyze, but who represent diverse states, to also vote for CIR, c) expect Republicans who supported CIR in the past to vote for CIR in 2013, and d) expect Republicans who may not have supported CIR in the past, but who represent increasingly diverse states, to vote for CIR. A more moderate prediction would remove the last assumption, leaving us with 67 votes. If there is a strong sense that CIR will, indeed, pass, there is likely to be a bandwagon effect during the final passage vote that moves us closer to the high-range estimate. However, if the mood around CIR changes, wherein there is less confidence that a bill will pass, the actual vote total is likely to be less than the moderate prediction.

The underlying assumption of the statistical models used to estimate likely support and opposition is that Senators who represent diverse states, particularly those with large foreign-born and Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations, are more likely to support a CIR bill that includes a path to citizenship than Senators in mostly white states – while considering other factors. One way to interpret these results is thus: to the extent that Senators are responsive to the changing demographics of their states, we can expect them to vote as the model predicts. However, it is not yet clear whether changing demographics – even given the November 2012 elections – will parlay into more legislative support for CIR.


Step 1 of this analysis models the cloture and final passage votes of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Here, I estimate two models. Model 1 focuses on the size of the foreign-born population while also accounting for other important factors (e.g., the party affiliation of Senators, southern state, etc.). Model 2 focuses on the size of different racial and ethnic groups. I construct categories of likelihood, wherein each predicted probability is characterized as a “solid yes” vote, “leans yes,” “leans no,” and “solid no” vote. These categories take into account the confidence intervals around each predicted probability. Figure 2 provides a graphical illustration.

Figure 2. Predicted probabilities and 95% confidence interval for all 100 Senators

Figure 2

Step 2 critically evaluates the predicted probabilities obtained in step 1 by analyzing the actual voting record on immigration-related bills for each Senator (where a voting record exists). For example, if a Senator voted for CIR in 2006 and for the DREAM Act in 2010, I expect the Senator to be categorized as “solid yes.” Conversely, if a Senator voted against CIR in 2006 and against the DREAM Act in 2010, I expect the Senator to be categorized as “solid no.” In all, 38 Senators fell along these lines and all were correctly classified except for 4, which represents an approximately 90% match rate.

Step 3 expands the analysis in step 1 to the full history of voting on immigration-related bills in the Senate from CIR 2006 to present as an additional check. The determinants of past votes on immigration policy are analyzed using a logistic regression model: Pr (Voteit = 1|Xit) = P (β0 + β1Xit + εit) where Xit represents a vector of explanatory variables, including key demographics characteristics, and εit represents the error term. In the Senate, there are nearly 6,000 observations to analyze. Predicted probabilities are then obtained from m = 1,000 simulations for each current member of the Senate using the estimated models.

Step 4 synthesizes all of the data – actual voting records and predicted probabilities – and assigns each Senator to one of the four categories of likelihood described above.