How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (2): Federal Wars of Attrition

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 27, 2012

When political leaders and activists both have deeply felt views about a policy issue, when the general public has conflicted views about the same issue, and when no consensus exists or can be developed, policy wars of attrition are likely to be the result. That succinctly describes the state of American immigration policy today.

The immigration wars, at all their levels, have been fought to a standstill, literally. The last major effort to enact a large-scale immigration bill at the federal level took place during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2007. That contentious bill, The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (a.k.a., The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007) was never formally voted on, but a series of amendments were raised and filibustered. Votes on closure to end the filibuster failed, and the bill was pulled. Proponents tried again two weeks later with the same result.

In 2010, the so called DREAM Act, aimed more narrowly at those who had illegally arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and were no older than 30 at the time, was brought up as a stand-alone bill and failed. It had been brought up in various forms several times after the larger 2007 bill failed, but had also repeatedly been unable to gain enough votes to force cloture.

Without taking a deep dive into the legislative and political details, the repeated failures of immigration legislation during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama reflect the obvious fact that legislators on both sides of the aisle have developed strong — and in many ways irreconcilable — views about the substance of any immigration legislation and the sequence that would accompany their implementation. These strong views matter more in a legislature in which safe election districts and seniority are the key methods of accumulating power in critical committees and subcommittees. And these structural elements are amplified when the balance of party power is divided both within the House and Senate and between them, as has been the recent case with the one exception of President Obama's first two years in office.

What then?

Blocked in Congress? The layered, overlapping, federated American system provides ample opportunities for advancing one's immigration policy views elsewhere.

And for continuing the battle — and the stalemate — consider American states.

Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (3): State Wars of Attrition or view a list of the entire series.