2 Years Later, Immigrants Are Still Waiting on Immigration Reform

Derek Martinez listens during a citizenship ceremony in New York on May 26, 2015.

On June 27, 2013, the Senate took a historic and bipartisan step toward an immigration system that works for all. By an overwhelming margin of 68 to 32 votes, the Senate passed S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. That bill took a comprehensive approach to modernizing the U.S. immigration system, providing a tough but fair pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the country, updating the legal visa system for the 21st century, and making the largest and most expensive investments in border security to date. But the House of Representatives refused to consider it—or any other form of immigration reform—and S. 744 died a slow, painful death in the 113th Congress. In the 114th Congress, the only pieces of immigration legislation debated so far have been enforcement-only bills, a far cry from the holistic solutions offered by S. 744.

So what would the country look like today had S. 744 become the law of the land? Put simply, millions of people would be on their way to permanent legal status and citizenship, thousands of families across the nation would be together, and the U.S. economy would see significant gains.

First and foremost, the Senate bill would have put the vast majority of the 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States on a 13-year pathway to citizenship. Anyone who entered the country prior to January 1, 2012, who passed a background check, had not committed a serious crime, and paid fees and a fine could apply to gain registered provisional immigrant, or RPI, status. This is the first step toward permanent residency. Once they gained RPI status, immigrants would be free from the constant worry that they or their family members could be picked up by police, detained, and deported at any time; they also would have the ability to work legally. After 10 years with RPI status, they could adjust to permanent residency and, three years later, become citizens. The bill also included accelerated pathways to citizenship for DREAMers—young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States prior to age 16—and agricultural workers.

If the majority of the unauthorized population were on a pathway to citizenship, far fewer people would be deported, meaning that fewer families and communities would be torn apart. For families who had lost a loved one to deportation, S. 744 included a section that allowed unauthorized immigrants who were removed from the country or left voluntarily to return and gain RPI status if they were a DREAMer or the spouse or parent of a citizen or legal permanent resident. The bill also created a new merit-based visa category to clear out the backlog of more than 4 million people who have been waiting for years—if not decades—to get a family- or employer-sponsored permanent visa.

By bringing millions of people off the economic sidelines and putting them on a pathway to permanent status, S. 744 would have grown the national economy significantly. Reform would have added a cumulative $1.2 trillion to the economy, increasing all Americans’ overall income by $625 billion and creating an average of 145,000 jobs per year over a decade.

Using Congressional Budget Office data, the Center for American Progress calculated that every day the House refuses to pass immigration reform costs the nation an average of $37 million. This means that over the two years since the Senate passed the bill, the nation has missed out on a staggering $26.8 billion. To put this number in perspective, that money could have been used to hire 7.5 teachers for every public elementary school in the country for an entire year.

S. 744 was not perfect. The final compromise that allowed it to move forward contained a long, prescribed list of border enforcement technology to be deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border, rather than allowing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to marshal its resources as needed to meet ever-changing border needs. It also repealed the diversity visa lottery—the visa category that accounts for roughly one-fifth of permanent visas going to African migrants to the United States—and the family-based green card category for siblings of U.S. citizens, a critical component of family unity. And yet this bipartisan bill represented a huge leap forward in solving many of the issues that have plagued the U.S. immigration system for years, if not decades. Had Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) allowed immigration reform to come up for a vote in the House in 2013 or 2014, it would have almost certainly passed, and the same is likely true today.

In the meantime, in November 2014—more than 500 days after the Senate passed S. 744—President Barack Obama announced the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, and the creation of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, program. These programs would provide a starting point to keep families together and supercharge the economy. Along with the original 2012 DACA program, the DACA expansion and DAPA are set to give more than 5 million people temporary relief from deportation and work permits and grow gross domestic product by a cumulative $230 billion over 10 years.

The deferred action programs would also make the process of implementing legislative immigration reform easier: Millions of people already would have completed much of the legwork by collecting documents that prove eligibility, applying for DACA, passing background checks, and providing their biometric information to the government. S. 744 recognized that DACA recipients had already completed these steps by allowing recipients to gain RPI status automatically after they passed a background check.

Yet rather than allow these programs to add to the economy and lay the groundwork for reform, the DACA expansion and DAPA program have been blocked in the wake of a politically minded Texas-led lawsuit.

Given the growing demographic and electoral power of Latinos in particular and high support for policies such as deferred action and immigration reform, the actions of both parties on immigration will matter greatly as the nation moves toward the 2016 election. Two years after the Senate passage of S. 744, the lives of millions of new Americans remain on hold while they wait for the courts to allow the DACA expansion and DAPA program to move forward and for Congress to pass durable and permanent immigration legislation.

Philip E. Wolgin is the Associate Director for the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.