Immigration Reform in an Election Year? History and Polls Say Yes

Paul Stern contributed to this post.

Much has been said about the feasibility of passing major pieces of legislation through a partisan Congress, especially with 2014 being an election year. With both parties trying to maintain their majority on one end of the Capitol and gain one on the other, 2014 may seem like a lost year for bipartisan compromise. However, history shows that immigration reform frequently occurs during election years. Reform is still possible if the legislative process is allowed to run its course.

Despite congressional inaction, polls indicate strong support for immigration reform. A February 2014 poll by the Global Strategy Group and Basswood Research (GSS/BR) found that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all support the key components of immigration reform. Majorities in each group support border security improvements, entry-exit visa tracking, electronic employment verification, reforms to legal immigration, and allowing unauthorized immigrants to get right with the law.

Americans don’t specifically name immigration reform among the country’s biggest problems, but reform would address most of the key issues at the top of the list. According to a January 2014 Gallup poll, immigration reform is not explicitly named as a top priority by many Americans. However, immigration reform significantly impacts four of the top five issues listed by participants as the most important problem facing America today: dissatisfaction with political leadership, the state of the economy, jobs, and the federal budget.

Immigration reform has the potential to provide tremendous economic benefits. BPC’s October 2013 study of immigration reform’s economic and fiscal impact found that if passed, reform could grow the economy by 4.8% and reduce the deficit by a cumulative $1.2 trillion over the next twenty years. A 2013 estimate by the Social Security Administration concluded that the Senate’s immigration bill would create about 3.3 million jobs in the first ten years.

With Congress’s approval rating hovering at a lowly 12 percent, compromising on immigration reform would also address the public’s top concern: dissatisfaction with the government, Congress, and politicians. Recently, the major objections raised by some members of Congress to passing immigration reform have been about politics and timing. By passing immigration reform—which on a policy level has broad public support—Congress could show the American people that despite partisan differences in an election year, Washington has not ground to a complete halt. In the same GSS/BR poll, 75 percent of Americans responded that they would see Congress more favorably if it passed immigration reform, compared to 9 percent who would see it less favorably. Among Republicans, the breakdown was 68-10 in favor.

Despite election year politics, history shows that meaningful legislation often passes in election years. This is especially true of immigration reform. Some of the most impactful immigration reform legislation of the last three decades has been passed in an election year, with several pieces coming under a divided government. In fact, 12 of the last 15 immigration reform bills passed in even years—and one of the three passed in odd years was the USA PATRIOT Act (see Table 1 below).

BPC Immigration Task Force co-chair Gov. Haley Barbour is fond of saying that immigration reform is good politics because it’s good policy. The public strongly supports fixing our broken immigration system in no small part because doing so would have a significant positive impact on jobs, the economy, and the budget, each of which ranks among Americans’ top concerns. Moreover, passing such bipartisan legislation would begin to address what Americans believe is our country’s biggest problem: a broken Washington.

Table 1. Immigration laws enacted, 1986-2014

Bill Name Passed House Passed Senate Election Type Congressional Makeup President
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 October 9, 1986 September 19, 1986 Midterm House: Democrat Senate: Republican Ronald Reagan
Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments 1986 September 29, 1986 October 18, 1986 Midterm House: Democrat Senate: Republican Ronald Reagan
Immigration Act of 1990 October 13, 1990 July 13, 1989 Midterm House: Democrat Senate: Democrat George H.W. Bush
Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994 November 20, 1993 (Resolved in conference committee October 7, 1994) November 20, 1993 (Resolved in conference committee October 7, 1994) Midterm House: Democrat Senate: Democrat Bill Clinton
Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 June 13, 1996 July 18, 1996 Presidential House: Republican Senate: Republican Bill Clinton
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Ac t of 1996 April 18, 1996 April 17, 1996 Presidential House: Republican Senate: Republican Bill Clinton
NACARA (1997) October 9, 1997 (differences resolved on November 13) November 9, 1997 (differences resolved on November 13) None House: Republicans Senate: Republicans Bill Clinton
American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 July 30, 1998 July 30, 1998 Midterm House: Republicans Senate: Republicans Bill Clinton
American Competitiveness in the Twenty First Century Act of 2000 October 3, 2000 October 3, 2000 Presidential House: Republicans Senate: Republicans Bill Clinton
Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act of 2000 December 15, 2000 December 15, 2000 Presidential House: Republicans Senate: Republicans Bill Clinton
USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 October 12, 2001 October 11, 2001 None House: Republicans Senate: Republicans George W. Bush
Family Sponsor Immigrant Act of 2002 July 23, 2001 December 20, 2001 Midterm House: Republicans Senate: 50/50 split George W. Bush
Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 October 6, 2004 October 16, 2004 Presidential House: Republicans Senate: Republicans George W. Bush
REAL ID Act of 2005 February 10, 2005 May 10, 2005 (As part of another piece of legislation) None House: Republicans Senate: Republicans George W. Bush
Secure Fence Act of 2006 September 14, 2006 September 29, 2006 Midterm House: Republicans Senate: Republicans George W. Bush
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Congress could show the American people that despite partisan differences in an election year, Washington has not ground to a complete halt