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

By Matt Graham

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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 NamePassed HousePassed SenateElection TypeCongressional MakeupPresident
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986October 9, 1986September 19, 1986MidtermHouse: Democrat Senate: RepublicanRonald Reagan
Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments 1986September 29, 1986October 18, 1986MidtermHouse: Democrat Senate: RepublicanRonald Reagan
Immigration Act of 1990October 13, 1990July 13, 1989MidtermHouse: Democrat Senate: DemocratGeorge H.W. Bush
Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994November 20, 1993 (Resolved in conference committee October 7, 1994)November 20, 1993 (Resolved in conference committee October 7, 1994)MidtermHouse: Democrat Senate: DemocratBill Clinton
Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996June 13, 1996July 18, 1996PresidentialHouse: Republican Senate: RepublicanBill Clinton
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Ac t of 1996April 18, 1996April 17, 1996PresidentialHouse: Republican Senate: RepublicanBill Clinton
NACARA (1997)October 9, 1997 (differences resolved on November 13)November 9, 1997 (differences resolved on November 13)NoneHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansBill Clinton
American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998July 30, 1998July 30, 1998MidtermHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansBill Clinton
American Competitiveness in the Twenty First Century Act of 2000October 3, 2000October 3, 2000PresidentialHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansBill Clinton
Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act of 2000December 15, 2000December 15, 2000PresidentialHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansBill Clinton
USA PATRIOT Act of 2001October 12, 2001October 11, 2001NoneHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansGeorge W. Bush
Family Sponsor Immigrant Act of 2002July 23, 2001December 20, 2001MidtermHouse: Republicans Senate: 50/50 splitGeorge W. Bush
Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004October 6, 2004October 16, 2004PresidentialHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansGeorge W. Bush
REAL ID Act of 2005February 10, 2005May 10, 2005 (As part of another piece of legislation)NoneHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansGeorge W. Bush
Secure Fence Act of 2006September 14, 2006September 29, 2006MidtermHouse: Republicans Senate: RepublicansGeorge W. Bush
2014-03-11 00:00:00
Congress could show the American people that despite partisan differences in an election year, Washington has not ground to a complete halt

KEYWORDS: GALLUP, GLOBAL STRATEGY GROUP, HALEY BARBOUR, PATRIOT ACT, PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN, SURVEYS AND POLLS