Center for American Progress

5 Major Immigration Laws that the House Passed in an Election Year

5 Major Immigration Laws that the House Passed in an Election Year

Most of the major immigration laws in the past three decades have passed in an election year. There is still plenty of time this year for the House to act and pass immigration reform.

Over the past few months, we have seen a slew of news stories predicting what will happen with immigration reform in 2014, after the Senate passed a strong bipartisan reform bill last year, but the House failed to act. While these analyses differ in their predictions, most agree that the path from bill to law becomes more difficult in an election year.

Yet if history is any guide, immigration reform absolutely can become law in an election year. In fact, the House of Representatives passed almost all of the past three decades’ major immigration legislation during election years. These bills passed both in times of undivided and divided government—with one party controlling the House and one party controlling the presidency—and in election years in which the majority party kept and lost control of the House.

Here are five major election-year immigration laws from the recent past:

1. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA, of 1986

Date passed by the House: October 9, 1986

Date of final conference vote: October 15, 1986

Party in control of the House: Democratic

Party in control of the presidency: Republican

IRCA revamped the immigration system by putting in place an employer sanctions program—penalties for hiring unauthorized workers—as well as providing legalization for roughly 3 million undocumented people who entered the country prior to January 1, 1982. It did not, however, fix the legal immigration system, nor did it provide adequate resources to actually implement the employer sanctions provisions.

Democrats held onto their House majority in the 1986 election, while Republicans lost control of the Senate after losing eight seats.

2. The Immigration Act of 1990

Date passed by the House: October 3, 1990

Date of final conference vote: October 27, 1990

Party in control of the House: Democratic

Party in control of the presidency: Republican

This bill overhauled the legal immigration system, raising the number of permanent visas given out each year from 290,000 to 675,000, and created the diversity-visa lottery, which allots 55,000 visas annually to immigrants from underserved countries.

The 1990 election saw Democrats add to their majorities in both the House and the Senate.

3. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRAIRA, of 1996

Date passed by the House: March 21, 1996

Date of final conference vote: September 28, 1996, as part of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act

Party in control of the House: Republican

Party in control of the presidency: Democratic

This immigration enforcement bill passed Congress as part of the yearly appropriations process, laying out the government’s spending for fiscal year 1997. The bill instituted a 3- or 10-year bar on returning to the United States for immigrants caught without proper documentation and required people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum status within one year of arriving in the country—one in five asylum seekers is currently denied because of this deadline. It also created the 287(g) program, through which local police can be deputized to act as immigration officials.

IIRAIRA came just two years after the passage of California’s Proposition 187, which—though later struck down by the courts—restricted undocumented immigrants from accessing any state public benefits. Proposition 187 was indicative of a wave of restrictionist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States during the mid-1990s. Restrictionists in Congress used this opening to expand limitations on immigration, passing IIRAIRA in the same year as a welfare reform bill that restricted noncitizens from accessing most public benefits.

President Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996, while Republicans maintained their majorities in both the House and the Senate.

4. The Legal Immigration Family Equity, or LIFE, Act and LIFE Act Amendments of 2000 

Date LIFE Act passed by the House: September 14, 2000

Date of final conference vote on LIFE Act: October 26, 2000, as part of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act

Date LIFE Act Amendments passed by the House: June 14, 2000

Date of final conference vote on LIFE Act Amendments: December 15, 2000, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001

Party in control of the House: Republican

Party in control of the presidency: Democratic

The LIFE Act and LIFE Act Amendments furthered the idea that family unity is the bedrock of immigration policy. The bills extended the cutoff for the 245(i) program, allowing immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and green-card holders already approved for residency to adjust their status to permanent residency without first leaving the United States, even if they had previously entered or worked in the country without legal status. The bill also created a temporary V visa category to allow spouses and children of green-card holders to reunite with their family in the United States rather than face long separations as they wait for a visa. Similar to IIRAIRA, these bills passed as part of the yearly budgetary appropriations process.

The LIFE Act amendments passed during the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, which pitted then-Vice President Al Gore (D) against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). In that election cycle, Republicans held onto their majority in the House, and Democrats picked up four seats in the Senate—not enough to retake the majority.

5. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act of 2010

Date passed by the House: December 8, 2010

Party in control of the House: Democratic

Party in control of the presidency: Democratic

The DREAM Act, a piece of legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented Americans, passed the House of Representatives during the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress. Just 10 days later, the bill fell five votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster in the Senate and failed to become law.

The vote on the DREAM Act occurred during the same lame-duck session in which Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and only a month after Democrats lost 63 seats and their majority in the House, as the Republican Party rode to victory on a wave of Tea Party support. DREAMers and congressional leaders such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) worked tirelessly to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote.

Plenty of time in 2014

House Speaker John Boehner has already stated that he wants to move forward on immigration reform this year—albeit in a piecemeal fashion—most likely after the primary-filing deadlines for the November election. At least 40 states will have passed these deadlines by the end of May, accounting for the races in which 23 of the 29 House Republicans who have come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship will be competing. The fact that four of the five bills listed above achieved final passage in either September or October makes it clear that there is ample time to pass immigration reform in 2014.

The circumstances of the DREAM Act also point the way toward another window of opportunity for immigration reform: the lame-duck session. Even if the House does not take a vote on immigration reform during the regular session, it is still possible to see action after the November election. While the DREAM Act ultimately failed, legislation such as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004—which passed during the lame-duck session of the 108th Congress and increased the number of Department of Homeland Security personnel, raised the number of congressionally mandated immigrant-detention beds, and tightened requirements for visa applications—illustrates that immigration-related legislation can pass during these special sessions.

All in all, the fight to pass meaningful immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship is still very much alive this election year. But with real people facing family separations and $37 million lost in economic benefits for each day that the House dawdles, the sooner reform passes, the better.

Philip E. Wolgin is Senior Policy Analyst for Immigration at the Center for American Progress. 

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy