From the time of the nation's founding, immigration has been crucial to the United States' growth and also a periodic source of conflict. At the turn of the 21st century, the country has experienced another great wave of immigration, the largest since the 1920s. However, for the first time, illegal immigrants outnumbered legal immigrants. An estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants were living here by 2008. Once again, immigration had become one of the most contentious issues on the political agenda.
In his second term of office, President George W. Bush championed comprehensive immigration reform, but a bipartisan bill was defeated in 2007 after an upswell from voters opposed to legal status for illegal immigrants.
President Obama said that immigration reform, including a plan to make legal status possible, would be a priority in his first year in office, but the economic downturn and the drawn out legislative fight over healthcare may have prevented action in 2009. Aides have described Mr. Obama's approach as seeking a way to allow illegal aliens to become legal, while imposing restrictions that would make immigration more orderly.
In March 2010 senators Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, unveiled the outlines of a reform proposal, which would require illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law before they could gain legal status and require all workers in the United States to carry a biometric identity card to prove that they are eligible to work. President Obama immediately responded with a statement saying it "should be the basis for moving forward," and he pledged "to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year" around the bill.
The Obama administration in August 2009 announced an ambitious plan to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a "truly civil detention system." The plan aimed to establish more centralized authority over the system, which holds about 400,000 immigration detainees over the course of a year, and more direct oversight of detention centers that have come under fire for mistreatment of detainees and substandard -- sometimes fatal -- medical care.
One move started immediately: the government stopped sending families to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison near Austin, Tex., that drew an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and scathing news coverage for putting young children behind razor wire.
OVERHAULING IMMIGRATION LAWS
In January 2004, President Bush called for an overhaul of the immigration laws, proposing the broadest changes since legislation in 1986 that gave amnesty to more than three million illegal immigrants. Mr. Bush asked Congress to create a guest worker program that would "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." Immigrants would be authorized as guest workers for three years, then required to return home. The plan offered illegal immigrants in this country the possibility of becoming legal by registering as temporary workers. After opening the debate, Mr. Bush did not press the issue during his re-election campaign that year.
By 2005, frustration was growing over illegal immigration, particularly among voters in states like Arizona and Georgia that had seen a surge in newcomers. In December 2005, the House passed a bill, championed by conservative Republicans, which focused on law enforcement and border security, making it a federal felony to live illegally in the United States and mandating hundreds of miles of fence along the Mexican border. Church groups and organizations representing immigrants and Hispanics protested the measure and organized large demonstrations through the spring of 2006.
In May 2006, the Senate easily passed legislation - crafted primarily by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona -- that offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and created a guest worker program. But the differences with the House bill proved too great to bridge, and the legislation died. By October of that year Congress, reflecting the changing mood in the country, passed a bill ordering the construction by the end of 2008 of about 700 miles of border fences.
President Bush seized the initiative again in early 2007, convening negotiations among a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, this time including Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, instead of Senator McCain. They wrote an ambitious bill, which was referred to as comprehensive reform, that proposed to open a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants after fees and other penalties, to create a guest worker program and also to re-orient the immigration system to put more emphasis on importing workers and less on family reunification.
That measure encountered intense opposition from well-organized voters who decried it as amnesty for immigrant lawbreakers. It died in June 2007 when it failed to attract enough votes to reach the Senate floor.
In the absence of federal legislation, state legislatures stepped in, adopting 206 laws related to immigration in 2008. The majority of new laws were designed to curb illegal immigration, by restricting access of illegal immigrants to driver's licenses and public benefits, and by cracking down on human smuggling. However, some states sought to aid immigrants with programs to help them learn English and to speed their assimilation in other ways.
On a federal level, officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, stepped up raids at factories and in communities, in a campaign that had started in 2006. The federal agency deported nearly 350,000 immigrants in fiscal 2008. Expanded federal prosecutions of illegal border crossers sharply reduced unauthorized entries in some southwestern border sectors, but also brought a flood of immigration cases in federal courts.
IMMIGRATION UNDER THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
Hispanic voters, including many newly naturalized immigrants, helped win several swing states for Barack Obama in 2008. Hispanic groups pressed President Obama to halt workplace raids and to move forward with legislation opening legal pathways for illegal immigrants. But despite early pledges that it would moderate the Bush administration's tough policies, the Obama administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy for an illegal-immigration crackdown that relies significantly on programs started by his predecessor.
The decision to stop sending families to Hutto, the 512-bed center in Texas, and to set aside plans for three new family detention centers, was the Obama administration's clearest departure from its predecessor's polices. Even so, the Obama administration has embraced many Bush administration policies, including expanding a program to verify worker immigration status that has been widely criticized, bolstering partnerships between federal immigration agents and local police departments, and rejecting a petition for legally binding rules on conditions in immigration detention.
After taking office, Mr. Obama had repeated a campaign pledge to offer a comprehensive bill before the end of 2009, and he chose proponents of that approach for senior positions in the administration, notably Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. But the deep recession, with millions of Americans losing jobs, dimmed the political prospects for efforts to increase immigration, and groups opposing legalization remained confident they could block any such proposal.
In broad outlines, officials said, the Obama administration favors legislation that would bring illegal immigrants into the legal system by recognizing that they violated the law, and imposing fines and other penalties to fit the offense. The legislation would seek to prevent future illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, while creating a national system for verifying the legal immigration status of new workers.
In May, census data from the Mexican government indicated an extraordinary decline in the number of Mexican immigrants going to the United States. Mexican and American researchers say that the current decline, which has also been manifested in a decrease in arrests along the border, is largely a result of Mexicans' deciding to delay illegal crossings because of the lack of jobs in the ailing American economy.
Mr. Obama told a bipartisan group of lawmakers on June 25 that Congress should begin debating a comprehensive immigration plan by year's end or early the next year. He named a group to work with Congress that will be led by Ms. Napolitano.
Republicans said they would support a measure only if it included an expansion of guest worker programs. Mr. McCain, who led the call for that provision, said an immigration overhaul had a fresh urgency because of the surge in violence along the border with Mexico.
A recent blitz of measures, including audits of employee paperwork at hundreds of businesses, has antagonized immigrant groups and many of Mr. Obama's Hispanic supporters.
Ms. Napolitano and other administration officials argue that no-nonsense immigration enforcement is necessary to persuade American voters to accept legislation that would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, a measure they say Mr. Obama still hopes to advance late this year or early next.
That approach brings Mr. Obama around to the position that his Republican rival, Senator McCain, espoused during the 2008 presidential campaign, a stance Mr. Obama rejected then as too hard on Latino and immigrant communities.
OUTLINES OF A SENATE PLAN
The plan calls for a big increase in immigration agents patrolling workplaces, and would require all workers, including legal immigrants and American citizens, to present a tamper-proof Social Security card when they apply for jobs. Biometric identity information would be stored on the card and not in any government database, according to an explanatory document from the senators.
The plan's emphasis is on making it easier for highly skilled and educated immigrants to come to the United States, including awarding residence documents known as green cards to those who receive advanced degrees in science and technology from American universities. It proposes a limited program for temporary lower-skilled guest workers, tightly keyed to changes in the American labor market.
To gain legal status, illegal immigrants would have to admit their legal violation, pay fines and back taxes and perform community service.
To advance the legislation, Mr. Schumer and Mr. Graham have said they need help from Mr. Obama to round up at least one more Republican sponsor, a prospect that seems unlikely while bitterness over the health care battle prevails on Capitol Hill.